Our mission—to mobilize caring New Yorkers in volunteer service—is most vital in times of hardship and uncertainty. To develop and inform the programs that serve New Yorkers in need across the five boroughs, we recently created Communities First. Developed hand-in-hand with the communities, this concept helps us strategically send resources and people power directly to the source to build a more equitable NYC.
Communities in the South Bronx, Central Queens, and East Brooklyn have historically faced food insecurity, a paucity of educational resources, marginalization, and social isolation. COVID-19 magnified and accelerated those challenges and called for immediate action.
Working with government agencies, activists and residents, New York Cares proactively listens to our communities of focus to understand the issues facing their neighborhoods, and deploy volunteers to make a meaningful, long-term difference. This approach speaks to the core of our values of equity, humanity, and trust.
When the first wave of the pandemic crashed in 2020, Central Queens had the distinction of being the epicenter of the epicenter of COVID sickness and death. New York Cares Community Engagement Associate Adam Maldonado said, “Anytime something happens, it hits Central Queens harder. It exacerbates issues that are already there.”
Queens is home to a large immigrant population, who bore the brunt of the first wave of job loss and unemployment. Central Queens residents—many of whom are not U.S. citizens—were unable to receive government assistance. As a result, food insecurity in neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Corona affect 50% of households.
To better understand the needs of these neighborhoods, Adam says, “It always starts with listening—you could be talking to elected officials, community boards, schools, or residents. Each person is going to have a slightly different take. When you gather those and see the big picture, you can see the trends. We’re always going to meetings to see what problems are rising and need to be addressed to keep our programming current.”
We believe that greater community change can only happen with proactive listening and understanding of community needs and assets. For example, Central Queens residents have expressed a desire for more youth programming to support the lack of general educational and recreational resources in the neighborhood, as well as a need to reduce the barriers to technology experienced by their scholars.
In response, we launched our Impact of Photography program with renowned photographer Mark Seliger and PS 330 Q in 2021. The program taught fifth-grade students photography basics while incorporating social-emotional learning elements, such as self and social awareness. Mark personally tutored students and held an end-of-semester exhibition at his award-winning studio. Providing the opportunity for this community-desired need is the core of our Communities First methodology.
EAST & CENTRAL BROOKLYN
East and Central Brooklyn have notably attracted a new class of renters and buyers due to its brownstones and convenience to Manhattan. New York Cares Community Engagement Associate Todd Gayle explains, “The economic gap is felt differently here than other parts of the city. Gentrification has introduced a different economic class to this part of Brooklyn. People have been aware of the gap before, but now they can see it across the street.”
These trends have made residents wary of promised resources from new faces. “Talking to people and building relationships is so important,” Gayle adds. “People are wary of outsiders coming in with ulterior motives that didn’t do right by the community. The people are good, and they welcome good-faith actors. They will welcome you with open arms.”
In addition to food insecurity, housing and a dearth of employment opportunities have ballooned due to COVID. Unlike food insecurity, lack of housing and employment have few responses that can immediately ease these problems. Though hunger, employment insecurity, and housing are often spoken of separately, they intertwine. And all these factors impact mental health and emotional well-being. In Brooklyn, the stress and trauma brought on by the pandemic has taken a toll on community members of all ages, especially children. Unfortunately, there are few resources to help people manage their mental health.
However, one Brooklyn organization is stepping up to meet these mental health needs. Enter the Brooklyn Book Bodega, whose mission is to promote children’s reading and its positive effects. According to the JAMA Network of Pediatricians, introducing children to reading, “helps develop the mental processes of motivation, curiosity, and memory.” Reading time can form the building blocks of language learning, and the one-on-one time and attention cue a life-long love for reading and learning. Most importantly, it “helps children cope during times of stress and tragedy.”
In collaboration with United for Brownsville, New York Cares recently joined Brooklyn Book Bodega to distribute 5,000 books over three events, promoting literacy, education, and support for our young scholars. Our volunteers—many of whom were local to Brooklyn—hand-delivered 1,500 of those books.
The communities of the South Bronx are diverse and resilient but face tremendous intersecting challenges. Neighborhoods in the Bronx consistently rank amongst the lowest of the state in health, education, and stability indicators. In the South Bronx specifically, they have the highest eviction rates, unemployment, public benefits enrollment, and child welfare involvement. Nearly 30 percent of Bronx residents live under the poverty line. Additionally, the South Bronx is one of the most over-policed neighborhoods in NYC, leading to an ongoing cycle of tension, incarceration, and family destabilization.
Civic engagement and action is critical to the success of Communities First, and so is corporate commitment. Recently, in partnership with The Home Depot Foundation, we stepped up to address educational inequality in the South Bronx by breathing life into an inactive school library at Community School 55.
According to Principal Luis Torres, “When I became the principal of Community School 55, we had a library, but due to funding and space needs we sadly had to close it. I’ve been a partner with New York Cares for many years and when the need for a library became more evident, I immediately reached out to them. They advised me of The Home Depot Foundation grant, and for me it was the greatest thing that could’ve happened to us with this project. Home Depot is a staple in the community and having all those volunteers come in just made me feel that there is still hope in our world.”
New York Cares began Communities First to concentrate resources and expand programming in areas of New York City where volunteer-based programs can make the greatest impact, to flip the question from “Here’s what we have to give” to “What do you need?”
We remain committed to delivering programming and services directly to the source—informed and developed in partnership with communities—as we strive to build a more equitable New York.