Posts Tagged ‘Washington Heights’

Trading Places: From Food Pantry Recipient to Volunteer to Staffer

Friday, August 29th, 2014

IMG_6725smBy Alice Kenny

Once a food bank recipient, today a staffer at the same food bank, Margarita Peralta knows firsthand how much better it is to give than to receive.

“I remember as far back as when I was eight, when my mom would take me to the Catholic Charities food pantry in Washington Heights and, unlike at the store, they’d give us all this stuff for free. Then we’d go home and my mom would line everything up on the table – tuna, chicken, rice, beans.

“We were happy but still it felt weird. I wondered what it would be like to be on the other side, to be the one giving the food instead of getting it.”

Now she knows.

The first in her family to go to college, Margarita took time off from her junior year at SUNY Potsdam to nurse her dad whose health has been eaten away by diabetes.

To fill out her days, she volunteered at the same food pantry she and her mom used to visit. She helped Catholic Charities computerize its once manual food tallies, working so hard and so often at registering new clients that Catholic Charities recently offered her a full-time job.

Evolving from recipient to volunteer to staffer, she offers a special perspective on the benefits and challenges related to each role.

Her parents were hard working immigrants from the Dominican Republic who never wanted to ask for help, she says. But illness diverted their race towards the American dream.

Her mother, a home health aide, had to quit her just-above minimum wage job to regularly rush Margarita as a child to the E.R. for treatment for sickle cell anemia, a chronic disease shared by one out of every 20 Dominican New Yorkers.

Her father, meanwhile, once a supermarket delivery driver, had his vision and much of his kidney function stolen by diabetes, another illness that strikes 10-percent of New York state’s population.

“He was always a working man but lost his license because he can barely see,” Margarita says, grabbing a napkin to cover her tears. “It’s a shock to see him go from being so active to just lying in bed.”

She inherited her parents’ work ethic, donating more than 100 hours to the food pantry during the winter months.

“I like the environment, the way staff and people served are so close and friendly,” she says. “It feels like a big family.”

She likes it so much, she added, that she plans to transfer to a city college so she can continue working for Catholic Charities, complete her studies and care for her dad.

“It brings joy when I know that I’m feeding someone that can’t feed themselves. Because my mom, dad and I have been in that position, it’s interesting to now see how for others, also, a bag of food can make someone so happy.”

It Takes A lot to Humble Yourself

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Lizzie  Sister ShyneBy Alice Kenny

Moms and children hungry, struggling and embarrassed by their need: these are some of Lizaura German’s earliest memories.

Lizzie practically grew up at the Catholic Charities food pantry  in Washington Heights.   Her mother, the site’s longest volunteer – 36 years and counting – brought Lizzie along when she was just past kindergarten age to help out in their neighborhood center.

Those served felt comfortable sharing their fears and tears with the then-little girl.

“It takes a lot to humble yourself to let people what know what you’re going through,” Lizzie says, recalling what she learned from an early age.  “There is a lot of pride involved because people want to fix things themselves.  When people finally express their need you don’t want them to lose hope.

“A food pantry,” she adds,  “is not just a bag of food, it’s a doorway for helping clients.”

As program manager for Catholic Charities Feeding Our Neighbors program, Lizzie enters this doorway daily, sometimes seven days a week.  She oversees nearly half of Catholic Charities food pantries plus three soup kitchens – more than 30 all told – commuting from the Catskill mountains to Staten Island along with the Bronx, Manhattan and, of course, Washington Heights.

The job, she says, relies nearly as much on diplomacy as it does on knowledge.  Most food pantry staff are volunteers including retirees from Wall Street. So while they are committed to helping their community, these volunteers are also accustomed to taking charge.  Lizzie makes sure volunteers feel appreciated while guiding them to listen to those on food pantry lines and make sure they connect them to the breadth of services Catholic Charities offers.

“Clients come in for a bag of food,” Lizzie says as she exchanges smiles with an elderly woman entering the food pantry.  “But meanwhile, their lights are being turned off or they’re being evicted.  We need to make sure the client feels comfortable enough to express that to the volunteer.”

With a masters degree  in public administration from Baruch College, a background that includes a stint at the United Nations, and a dad who works as executive sous chef at the famed Carmine’s restaurant in Greenwich Village, Lizzie could likely land a job almost anywhere.

But her commitment, she says, is to those she serves at Catholic Charities.

“My job is to be the voice of the client,” she say, “because there is nothing worse than losing a client or knowing that a client was not fully helped.”

Lean In

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

impactdaycollageBy Alice Kenny

On June 6, one hundred and sixty volunteers from the national consulting firm Deloitte ventured away from their offices and fanned out to more than a dozen separate site locations affiliated with Catholic Charities and its social service programs. Below is the last installment in a series about their adventures. It offers a glimpse at the large amount that together we can accomplish.

At Catholic Charities Alianza Division in Washington Heights where per–capita income is half the New York average, Deloitte volunteers staged mock interviews with students, provided resume-writing one-on-ones and offered personalized job skills training. Meanwhile, low-income women who study at Grace Institute, a Catholic Charities affiliate that provides tuition-free job training took advantage of similar mock-interviews, career panels and networking opportunities thanks to Deloitte volunteers stationed there. “I volunteered here today because this is something I’m passionate about,” said Deloitte Consulting LLP Director Oliver Siodmak in the once grand but now aging George Washington High School auditorium where the student program was held.

“Everyone has potential.” Help people meet their potential. Share your talents, time or voice.

Struggling Students Score Scholarships that May Change Their Lives

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Senior Awards Dinner 6-12-14By Alice Kenny

Three students from Washington Heights where the per-capita income is half that of the rest of New York City received a surprise at their Senior Awards Dinner last Thursday, June 12, that may well change their lives.

The students, former participants in Catholic Charities Alianza division GPS program, short for Graduate, Prepare, Succeed, were each handed $20,000 Presidential Scholarships to attend City College in the fall ’14. As the scholarships show, the GPS program designed to provide key support to promote higher education for low income teens clearly succeeded.

Guillermo Rivera, admissions counselor at City College, gave the awards to High School for Media and Communications Seniors Katherine Burgos, Nestor Ramos, and Jordi Caceres, praising them for their resiliency and perseverance.

“The night was filled with pride, joy, and a lot of excitement,” said Catholic Charities Alianza GPS Program Director Pierina De La Cruz. “And the night could not have ended on a better note!”

Struggling Teens Explore Careers in Engineering

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

By Alice Kenny

Teens from Washington Heights, where per–capita income is half the New York average, balanced on scaffolding, learned the rudiments of how to build a high rise that won’t fall down and took their first steps towards becoming engineers at Liberty Science Center last Saturday, April 19, 2014.

The event, hosted by Catholic Charities Alianza Division and sponsored by the Society of Hispanic Professionals in Engineering, was designed to motivate minority students to explore the possibility of pursuing careers in engineering. Students from the High School for Media and Communications GPS program – short for Graduate, Prepare and Succeed – that participate in Catholic Charities’ Alianza Dominicana were bused from Washington Heights to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. There they met with engineering professionals who answered questions and peeked students’ curiosity as they explored the 300,000 square foot learning center.

Next up for these students is Engineering Day on Saturday, May 10. Also held also at the Liberty Science Center, teens will team up to build their own machines. These engineering immersion experiences fit the mission of Catholic Charities Alianza Dominicana, to assist children, youth and families break the cycle of poverty and fulfill their potential as members of the global economy.

Washington Heights Students Go for the Gold

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

By Alice Kenny

Teenagers from the streets of Washington Heights grabbed first through sixth prizes in La Plaza Beacon’s Reading for Success Contest. Designed to develop students’ reading comprehension and expand their futures, the prizes tantalized more than a dozen participants, spurring students in this low-income neighborhood to score well on the annual New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exam.

For weeks, participants completed their homework at La Plaza Beacon, part of Catholic Charities’ Alianza Division.

Contest participants then broke into teams of three or four to complete reading and comprehension quizzes and perfect their skills writing essays.

The winner not only scored a top grade on the ELA exam but a restaurant dinner as well. Second-through-sixth place winners celebrated with a pizza party.

La Plaza Beacon teens are now readying for a math contest to prepare them for the upcoming New York State Mathematics Exam later this month.

La Plaza Beacon provides a safe, supervised after-school setting for neighborhood youth. Along with tutoring and homework help, it also offers cultural activities, arts and recreation.

Teens Trade in Washington Heights for Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

By Alice Kenny

Trading in their Washington Heights neighborhood for a tour of Washington, D.C., more than three dozen low-income teens checked out monuments and colleges in our nation’s capital during their recent winter break, thanks to Catholic Charities Community Services-Alianza Division.

The tour, funded through a grant from the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation and collaboration with the High School for Media & Communications and Catholic Charities Community Services-Alianza Division, offered the students a glimpse of a future outside their neighborhood, a reason to study, and a step-by-step outline of how to apply for and get accepted by top-tier universities.

The visit included stops at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington and Lincoln memorials, a tour of Georgetown, George Washington and Howard universities and photos and selfies in front of the White House.

The trip was one of – and many say the most fun – of numerous offerings  Catholic Charities Alianza Division offers young people in the Washington Heights school community.

All the offerings share the same goal:  to inspire students to dream big and give them the resources to make it happen.

Washington Heights Teens Stage Red Carpet Event with Dominican Flare

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

By Alice Kenny

St. Valentine’s Day took on a Dominican flare for middle school-aged students in Washington Heights last week. Decked out in traditional Dominican costumes, the participants from La Plaza Beacon After-School Program acted out their own version of the 2014 Red Carpet. They also directed, worked as stage hands and videotaped this Oscar-inspired evening.

The night was the second annual event of its kind sponsored by La Plaza Beacon, part of Catholic Charities’ Alianza Division.  During after-school hours, La Plaza Beacon’s school-based community center transforms a local school into a thriving neighborhood center. It provides a safe, supervised place where youth go for recreation, cultural activities, homework help and tutoring.

“Our participants were the center of the event,” La Plaza Beacon Director Leonardo Dominguez said. “We also took advantage of the event to recognize the work done for them in arts and craft, video, sports, technology, music and dance.”

Msgr. Sullivan, Senator Gillibrand & Fellow Leaders Take on Food Insecurity

Monday, January 27th, 2014

On Sunday, January 26, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan met with the leaders of other emergency food providers and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at the Food Bank for New York City warehouse in the Bronx.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the impending further cuts of billions of dollars to supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP) by the federal government.

The network of Catholic Charities agencies and programs are a significant part of the efforts to address the issue of hunger and food insufficiency.  In fact, the roundtable discussion took place on the same day as the kickoff of Catholic Charities annual Feeding our Neighbors campaign, an archdiocesan–wide effort to replenish food pantries and respond to the overwhelming need in our New York community.

“It’s just sort of a simple, homemade approach to a big problem,” said Cardinal Dolan recently in support of the campaign.   “Everybody talks about hunger and how bad it is, and our politicians argue about it, debate about it, but the faith community said, ‘Let’s do something about it.’ ”

“The meeting confirmed what Catholic Charities has been experiencing across our own network of emergency food programs throughout the communities in the New York metropolitan area,” said Monsignor Sullivan.  “Since November, after cutbacks in support of ongoing nutrition assistance programs [$5 billion nationwide], we have seen a surge in working families visiting our programs.”

In Washington Heights for example, people have begun lining up before 7am to make sure they can obtain food for their families.  Catholic Charities has over 4,000 families registered for food assistance but only enough food to serve 1,000 families in need each month.

Volunteer efforts and food drives can only do so much to address the overwhelming need.  They cannot come close to replacing the need for government resources and assistance for families struggling to put food on the table.

Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center Opens Its Doors

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center (ADCC) officially opened its doors to the community yesterday with an open house featuring performances by children from its classical and folkloric music programs, and from its partner organizations in theater and film. The Center has been operating since this past  September under the direction of Program Manager Altagracia Diloné Levat.

In addition to visual, performing, and literary arts programming, ADDC seeks to build and strengthen community
through the arts by providing capacity building support to small arts nonprofits and actively reaching out to foundation
and other private funders to bring desperately needed funding to the Heights. Housed in the beautiful Alianza Dominicana Triangle Building, ADDC will become a home for local artists committed to enriching the lives of the residents of Northern Manhattan through the arts.

In 2012, the Board of Trustees of Alianza Dominicana reached out to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York for assistance. The Alianza Board wanted to ensure that there was continuity of services and that the programming stayed in the Washington Heights community and not be lost due to the financial difficulties the organization was facing. Through negotiations with the City of New York and other funders, Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS) was assigned several contracts that maintained youth and cultural programs in the community for over 1100 youth in the Washington Heights and South Bronx communities.

“Catholic Charities is committed to ensuring that the community continues to receive, without interruption, the youth and cultural programs key to the Washington Heights area. It is important that the funding and programming stay in this community,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. “Catholic Charities supports the decision of the Alianza board and looks forward to a continued collaborative partnership.”

Part of this collaboration included CCCS’ commitment to the development of designated space at the Triangle building into a Cultural Center as had been originally envisioned by Alianza Dominicana. Thanks to the support of Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, CCCS was able to get funding through the City Council to centralize the cultural programs that that had been part of Alianza Dominicana for many years, and to promote collaboration among the many cultural service providers in Washington Heights. This collaboration keeps the dream alive of having a cultural center providing art, music, and theater programming free of charge to the community.

“We are setting out to make 165th Street the cultural gateway to Washington Heights, with the Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center playing a major role in the ambitious project,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez. “Our community has so much to offer in the way of music, art, literature, drama and dance, but too few spaces for which to showcase it all. That is why I was pleased to allocate $250,000 so a state of the art facility could house the great groups already doing amazing work in Northern Manhattan. We are keeping Alianza alive through the rich culture that blends so many communities together to make Washington Heights a beacon of the arts in New York City.”

ADCC’s 2013 – 2014 season is a testament to this commitment. For its premier season, the Center has partnered with several well-known cultural organizations in Washington Heights: the Association of Dominican Classical Artists and its Washington Heights Community Conservatory and Camerata Washington Heights, the People’s Theatre Project, KidCinema Fest and Dominican Film Festival, and the Conjunto Folklórico of Catholic Charities Community Services/Alianza Youth Services Division.

“This beautiful space was filled with children learning to make music and joyfully playing theatrical games while learning about healthy habits, all thanks to our partnership with the Washington Heights Community Conservatory and the People’s Theatre Project. These are just two of the many small, arts organizations in Northern Manhattan doing the work with little or no institutional support, said Altagracia Diloné Levat. “It is a great honor to have the opportunity to lead this effort to realize Alianza Dominicana’s vision for a multicultural center– with a focus on Afro-Dominican artistic traditions– in the heart of its Triangle Building. This new beginning would not have been possible without the support of Catholic Charities Community Services and for that, our community is deeply grateful.”

Alianza Cultural Center’s mission is to produce literary, performing, and visual arts programs; to support and strengthen community cultural programs and institutions in Washington Heights and Inwood; and to serve as a home to local artists committed to enriching the lives of Northern Manhattan residents through the arts. Alianza Cultural Center is a multicultural project, celebrating Dominican, Latino, and Latin American cultures, with a special focus on Afro-Dominican artistic traditions in our own programming. The Center’s physical space comprises the beautiful second floor gala/exhibition space, two performing arts studios and a large multipurpose space in the lower level, the lobby exhibition space, and the spectacular rooftop terrace.