The staff at VOA-Greater New York (VOA-GNY) are critical to the work we do. As essential workers, they have shown up every day throughout the pandemic to keep our neighbors in need safe. Meet them below and be sure to follow our new #WisdomWednesday (formerly #FrontlineFriday) series on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
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Community Support Services Counselor, Horizons at Clifton/Passaic Supportive Housing Expansion
From law and order to love and kindness.
After starting out as a Criminal Justice major in college, Brieana switched her focus to Psychology when she realized that what she loves most is helping people—and not just helping, but being there and sticking with them through thick and thin.
Today, as a Community Support Services Counselor at one of our programs in Northern New Jersey, she helps individuals with behavioral health disorders tackle things like household maintenance, grocery shopping, traveling to and from appointments, and taking medication correctly. She also helps fill out and submit paperwork so residents can obtain benefits like food stamps and government-issued rental vouchers.
Brieana is often tasked with helping people who have been homeless learn how to live within the community again. One of the things she loves most about her job, she says, is “Taking someone from a hospital or homeless shelter and bringing them into their own apartment for the very first time. They are always so thankful!”
Recently, Brieana and her colleagues took pride in witnessing the progress of a client struggling with hoarding. “It was so gratifying to see the look on this client’s face as she enjoyed the newly cleaned-up and clutter-free living area.” It’s moments like that, Brieana says, that make all the hard work and patience required for the job she does worthwhile.
When Brieana is not helping people at VOA-GNY, you might find her kayaking, picnicking with her mom and sister, or reading thrilling novels by Dean Koontz or Stephen King.
Or, you might find her lending a hand to a friend or family member, because helping is just a part of who she is.
Associate Program Director, Regent Family Residence
Do you have a person in your family or friend group who is the reliable go-to for help with personal problems?
In Tatiana’s life, she is that person.
This makes the job she does helping families who have struggled with homelessness a perfect fit.
As Associate Program Director at our family shelter in Upper Manhattan, Tatiana makes sure that residents get everything they need both before and after their time in shelter. Whether they require medical care, referrals to mental health services, or help with education or finding employment, Tatiana and her team make sure that needs are met—and all of this is in addition to the hard work she and her teammates do to help families find and move on to permanent homes.
“The best days,” Tatiana says, “are when I walk into the building and see bags and bins, because that is the telltale sign that a family is moving on to permanent housing.”
She goes on to explain that sometimes clients, who have spent a long time on the street, or bouncing around among different shelters, don’t believe that they will ever find themselves in a permanent home. Tatiana tells them, “At VOA-GNY we’re different—we’ll move you into permanent housing and you will never return to shelter again.”
“And then,” she adds, “we prove it.”
Administrative Assistant II, Pugsley Family Shelter
"A life not lived for others is not a life."
Juan could not be more perfectly suited for working with asylum-seeking families in the Bronx.
As a native of Colombia who obtained his own citizenship by seeking asylum, he understands the process better than anyone and knows what it’s like to be all alone, trying to make it in another country.
Juan also has a long history of helping people. He first became involved with human services work in Colombia after visiting a community that was so poor that its children could only afford to eat once a day. “I was heartbroken,” he says, and has devoted himself to this work ever since.
His efforts to engage and bring people together to create positive change became so successful that he eventually became noticed by #BloombergPhilanthropies #CitiesofService and was awarded a grant for his work.
Over the last few years, Juan has worked at several VOA-GNY programs in multiple capacities, but today he uses his personal experience at our first sanctuary shelter helping families who have been forced to flee Latin America and Central America.
In addition to providing food and shelter to these families, Juan helps them enroll their children in school, obtain medical care, and perhaps most important of all, he gives them comfort and guidance when they need it most.
“Every day,” he says, “I try to empower these families. When I see them sad, I remind them this is a marathon.”
“I have so much empathy,” he says. “I understand what it’s like to be alone in a foreign country with no one and nothing.”
"I'm whoever my clients need me to be in that moment."
Jacqueline’s first experience with VOA-GNY was when she called the domestic violence hotline in need of emergency assistance.
Christelle Padmore, Program Director at the shelter where Jacqueline took refuge, remembers her well. “She complied with everything and attended all the support groups—DV, Parenting, you name it, she earned all the certificates... and then she volunteered to help the other residents with childcare!”
Since Jacqueline had grown up in the foster care system, she’d always been interested in human services. Before long, she began looking for a job within the field, eventually garnering multiple job offers from various providers. But Jacqueline turned all the other offers down for a position with VOA-GNY—because she wanted to give back to the organization that had helped her so much.
The first job Jacqueline held at VOA-GNY was as a maintenance worker at one of our supportive housing programs for adults with a history homelessness and mental illness.
Although Jacqueline excelled in the job and enjoyed it, she was forced to take a sudden leave of absence after her ex found her in a taxi on the way to work one day, sending her to the hospital in need of stitches.
To ensure Jacqueline’s future safety, VOA-GNY transferred her to a new location, but also promoted her to Case Manager, which was a welcome surprise!
Today Jacqueline loves her job at a residence that provides supportive housing to people who are formerly homeless and/or living with mental illness.
“We support those who need support,” she says. “Whether housing, food, or mental health, we assist people with goals they have set for themselves. Sometimes I’m a cheerleader, sometimes I’m a parent—I’m whoever my clients need me to be in that moment.”
But Jacqueline doesn’t take sole credit for the work she does. “Without my coworkers,” she says, “I am nothing.”
Also, she says of her coworkers, “We care about each other so much.”
At VOA-GNY, Jacqueline found not just a job—but a family.
Front Desk Staff
Regent Family Residence & University Family Residence
At VOA-GNY, we don’t just provide shelter to people in need—we foster a sense of belonging and love.
But before we can provide any of these things, we first must create a safe environment so that clients can feel protected as they work toward pursuing their goals.
That is why we pride ourselves on employing the very best front desk staff, a group of individuals whose dedication, attention to detail, coolness under pressure, and empathy helps them deliver services to our clients that goes above and beyond what is expected.
Congratulations to the front desk staff who were recently honored for their outstanding security performance by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) at a special luncheon this month.
Pictured here, from left to right: Michael Coppin, Front Desk Supervisor, Dilan Molina, Front Desk Supervisor, Tatiana Alston, Case Manager Supervisor, Aboudassisou Aliou, Front Desk Monitor, Wilfred Samson, Front Desk Monitor, Demetrios Vasilakos, Program Director, Ramon Martinez, Front Desk Monitor, Jumaane Johnson, Front Desk Supervisor, Linda Moshett, Program Director.
Program Director, Legacy Family Shelter
"We engage people by doing small things."
Sometimes from suffering comes a desire to serve.
After losing her mother to drug use, Lisette sought work with a Bronx organization that helps people with substance use issues almost as soon as she was old enough to work.
While helping individuals who struggled with addiction, she developed an understanding for the pain and suffering her mother faced and became a devoted human services professional.
With the mentorship of a friend, in addition to some time spent working in real estate, she also became expert in connecting individuals and families who are homeless with housing, and for more than fifteen years, she has used her expertise and dedication at one of our family shelters in the Bronx.
There she listened to clients, determined their needs, and connected them with food, clothing, healthcare, mental health or substance use programs, education, child-care, employment, and ultimately permanent homes.
Today she is Program Director of our newest and largest family shelter, which is scheduled to open in Brooklyn soon. It is a role she is excited to fill, and she has high praise for VOA-GNY, which she credits with helping her to grow professionally during her sixteen years of service.
As Lisette awaits the arrival of the shelter’s first clients, she is eager to mentor her staff, because, as she points out, “If the staff don’t know what to do, the clients will be stuck [without homes].”
What Lisette loves most about her job is seeing progress with clients who have been hard to reach. “Sometimes clients come to us,” she says, “and I can see that no one has ever given them hope. That’s where VOA-GNY is different. We engage people by doing small things, sitting down with them, reading with them, listening to them . . . then little things turn into big things.”
Case Manager Supervisor, Schwartz Assessment Shelter
"This job teaches you to give people grace."
Having a strong desire to help people has always been a part of who Kaori is.
Even before joining VOA-GNY, she enjoyed serving in the Harlem community where she grew up—participating in backpack giveaway drives, raising money for youth scholarships, feeding the homeless.
Today she puts her innate desire to make the world a better place to use as Case Manager Supervisor at our assessment shelter for men who are homeless, where she ensures individuals who enter the shelter are matched with the services they need—whether medical, mental-health or substance use related—so they can be referred to permanent or supportive housing placements.
Sometimes Kaori even becomes instrumental in reuniting clients with family members. Once she confirms the names and addresses of a client’s relatives, she helps them purchase a bus or train ticket so they can continue the process of getting back on their feet among those who love and know them best.
One of the things Kaori appreciates most about her job is the incredible support she receives from her VOA-GNY supervisors, who lift her up when times get tough and inspire her to do her best work.
When Kaori is not helping VOA-GNY clients, you might find her blogging, figure skating, planning a podcast or spending time with her very large family, with whom she enjoys an exciting annual road trip.
In addition to human services, Kaori relishes family, children, and tradition.
Maintenance II, Commonwealth Residence
"Sometimes a person just needs to know somebody cares."
Using his talents with power tools to help people in need is a gift that runs in Joey’s family.
For over ten years his late father was a well-known and loved superintendent at one of our family shelters in the Bronx.
Today Joey follows in his father’s footsteps as a much-adored maintenance employee at one of our SROs that provides permanent supportive housing to formerly homeless adults, many of whom struggle with mental illness, in Upper Manhattan.
As a jack-of-all-trades, Joey is always ready to do what’s needed—whether that means making sure the building is clean, facilitating room turnover (which entails painting and carpentry) for new clients, fixing a leaky boiler, or clearing a stopped-up sink.
He loves that through this job he can learn everything there is to know about the handyman field. But what he values most is the opportunity it provides to help people, whether by fixing a broken refrigerator or just lending an ear when someone needs to talk.
When Joey isn’t taking care of clients, he enjoys taking care of people at home. With two daughters, ages six and four, there aren’t too many dull moments. He especially likes taking them out to the movies and the zoo.
“Spending time with family is important,” he says, “because life is too short.”
Program Director, Domestic Violence Shelter
"A challenging situation will lead to wisdom."
Denise has worn many hats over the past 20 years. From Executive Assistant to Quality Assurance Coordinator to QA Manager to Assistant Program Director—you name it, Denise has done it.
But today she puts her vast and varied experience to use as Program Director at one of our newest domestic violence shelters, where she provides support, encouragement and guidance to women and children who are survivors of violence in the home.
All her life Denise has been interested in helping people. Having grown up in a religious environment, she cared for her ailing grandmother and always dreamed of entering the Peace Corp as a girl.
After working for a short time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after college, Denise eventually made her way to VOA-GNY. As she recounts, “As soon as I walked in for the interview, I knew I wanted the job—I was floored by the work they were doing at VOA-GNY.”
Today, she relishes a position that allows her to indulge her love of people and desire to give back to the community. One of the things she finds most rewarding is being able to help women in need of emotional support. Sometimes, she explains, clients come into her office with huge amounts of anxiety, and it feels good to see them leave feeling more relaxed. “You have no idea sometimes,” she says, “That you’ll be called to serve in this way on a particular day . . . and it’s really impactful.”
Another aspect of the job Denise loves is seeing her staff laughing and happy. “Because good energy attracts good energy,” she explains.
“And clients can feel when you have good energy.”
Greg & Latoya
Schwartz Assessment Shelter
A dynamic duo! That’s what Latoya and Gregory have become since they began working together at our assessment shelter for men on Ward’s Island.
As former case managers, each has a deep understanding of what clients need and how best to help them. “Client focused,” is the way Gregory explains it, who is now the Community Engagement & Employment Program Coordinator.
Ever since he began connecting clients with job opportunities, it seemed only natural that he and Latoya, Housing Coordinator, would begin working more closely together—because once Gregory helps someone find a job, then Latoya can begin helping that person find an apartment.
“When clients come into shelter,” Latoya says, “Greg is their first step.” He’s in charge of explaining what they need to do to become eligible for permanent housing.
“A lot of people have a misconception that as soon as they come into a shelter, they’re automatically going to get housing, but it’s not that simple,” she explains. There are many forms to fill out, documents to be obtained, and steps to be completed.
To help make the path from temporary to permanent housing clearer for clients, Gregory recently created an orientation curriculum. Now, as soon as they enter the shelter, clients are provided with a road map for how they can achieve their personal goals.
“It’s not always easy,” Gregory admits. “Sometimes clients don’t take advantage of the services that are offered.” But whenever he knows that someone is serious, he sends Latoya an email and she connects that person with a housing specialist.
“And if there is no specialist available,” Latoya explains, “I’ll work with the client myself.”
“What I appreciate most about Gregory is that he’s compassionate. He’s willing to go out into the community and do the work. He really cares. It’s not just a job to him and he always has the client’s best interest at heart.”
Gregory values Latoya’s leadership and experience. “I like to pick the brains of those I admire, and she is one,” he says.
“If not for Gregory, the job would happen, but it would be more difficult.” Latoya says. “There would be no balance. We support each other.”
“Plus,” she adds, smiling, “He brings life to the place.”
System Business Manager and Associate Director of Operations, Cromwell Avenue Safe Haven
"When one does good, it's very rewarding."
30 years. That’s how long Diana has been giving of herself to help others at VOA-Greater New York. And having worked in multiple locations and capacities, Diana knows the organization inside and out.
Today, as System Business Manager and Associate Director of Operations at our 80-bed transitional housing program for men in the Bronx, Diana is responsible for making sure things run smoothly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether that means ordering supplies or supporting case managers whose clients are struggling with mental health and substance use disorders, Diana is up to the task.
A staunch believer in preparing her team for the next step in their careers, Diana is especially proud to say that since she’s been in her current position, two of her staff members have been promoted. She loves any opportunity to pass her knowledge on to others, and she is especially pleased when she witnesses her staff doing the same. “It’s all about working together as a team,” she says.
Unlike many who find themselves in human services professions, Diana did not dream of doing this kind of work all her life. She simply needed a job.
“But,” she continues, “I stayed because I grew to love it.”
“It’s never boring,” she says. “And because of that, every day is a good day.”
Case Management Supervisor, Schwartz Assessment Center
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” —MLK
Anita knows about overcoming obstacles in life.
More than twenty-six years ago, she walked away from an abusive relationship and an addiction—a habit that was likely to kill her—in a single day. Today, she draws upon her lived experience to understand the needs of her clients and help them get back on their feet.
As Case Management Supervisor at our assessment shelter for men who are experiencing homelessness, Anita loves interacting with clients and helping them in any way that she can. “If I can help just one person each day,” she explains, “I feel like I’ve made a difference.”
Although sometimes her work can be challenging, particularly since many of the individuals she serves suffer from severe and persistent mental health issues, Anita says it is important to stay focused on the job that needs to be done: moving people who are housing insecure into safe and stable homes.
Sometimes this means referring clients to a rehab facility. Other times it means helping them reconnect with family. Anita especially loves when people can be reunited with loved ones. And she is equally pleased when clients who have moved on to permanent or supportive housing call her months later to thank her for all her hard work.
“One phone call like that,” she says, “Makes it all worthwhile.”
Richard F. Salyer House
They really began to click, according to their program director, when Jose arrived on the scene—the building’s superintendent.
Since then, the maintenance team at Richard F. Salyer House, VOA-Greater New York’s permanent, supportive housing residence in Upper Manhattan, has been accomplishing every task quickly, precisely, and with a smile.
Whether putting in new flooring, repairing an appliance or patching a leaky pipe, Nathaniel, Pedro, Mark, Darryl and Jose collaborate and get things done.
“This particular team is very knowledgeable,” explains Jose. When a unit needs to be readied for turnover, one person paints, one person does the electrical work, and one person does the floor. Each team member knows his role, and they all support each other.
Plus, they are all very familiar with the residents, and the residents trust them.
“Even though we have different personalities,” says Pedro, “we all respect each other. We take the work seriously but have fun while we’re doing it. And when one of us doesn’t know something, we learn from each other.”
“This is the best team I’ve ever worked with,” says Jose. “On top of it all, this is a group of men who all genuinely want to help—it’s more than just a paycheck to them—and that makes all the difference."
Residential Services Manager, University Family Residence
"Don't lose sight of the big picture."
Koffi has been helping families experiencing homelessness at one of our shelters in the Bronx for over five years. During that time, he has worn many hats—including Front Desk Monitor, Case Manager, Housing Specialist and now Residential Services Manager, in addition to Administrative Assistant.
In his current role, Koffi is responsible for making sure all paperwork is done properly when new families enter the shelter. He also oversees the front desk and ensures the building remains safe and sound.
Koffi especially loves when clients find a new home—something he used to help with directly as a housing specialist. “When families move into permanent housing,” he says, “I just love to see the faces light up.”
Back in Ivory Coast where Koffi is from, a human services mindset is part of the basic fabric of life. “In Africa,” he explains, “everybody is watching everybody’s child, and neighbors are always ready to assist when you need it.” Perhaps because of this, the skills necessary to be good at his job—compassion, patience and understanding—seem to come naturally to him.
And when things get tough, Koffi doesn’t sweat it.
“The important thing,” he reminds us, “is to keep your eye on the big picture. Don’t focus only on the moment because there’s a solution to everything and the [difficult] moment will pass.”
When Koffi is not helping families at the shelter, you’re likely to find him playing piano, swimming, or learning new skills. Or perhaps you might catch him speaking one of the six languages he knows: English, French, Spanish, Zulu and the tribal languages of his mother and father!
Assistant Program Manager, Horizons at Clifton/Passaic Expansion
“Patience is the biggest key.”
Michaeline was planning to be a surgical nurse in college, but after taking her first psychology class she changed her focus and never looked back.
Today, as Assistant Program Manager of one of our supportive housing programs for adults with behavioral health issues in Northern New Jersey, Michaeline has become an expert in caring for adults with mental health diagnoses—a vocation, she explains, that is as rewarding as it is challenging.
Many of the individuals she cares for do not have family and she often finds herself providing the same type of social support that a family member would. This includes accompanying clients to doctor’s appointments, advocating for them when necessary, and teaching them how to advocate for themselves. Other times it means making a trip to the grocery store or teaching someone how to hunt for bargains or pick out healthy foods.
Michaeline even recalls a time when a client was having a medical procedure that required sedation. She was there to hold her hand until the anesthesia took hold and waited right outside the door until the procedure was over.
Whatever the task, Michaeline loves that her job is never the same. “You never know what’s going to happen each day,” she says, “And I’m always motivated to get to work because I know the [clients] need me and I don’t want to let them down.”
Senior Counselor, Northern New Jersey Community Support Services
“Keep your eye on the end goal.”
For over six years, Andrea has been helping adults with behavioral health needs in Northern New Jersey solve problems and achieve goals through our Community Support Services (CSS).
As the only Spanish-speaking counselor in a region with many Spanish speakers, Andrea works long days. Sometimes she helps clients find housing, or addresses their physical and emotional well-being by connecting them with doctors and/or mental health professionals. Other times she helps them find employment or educational opportunities. “I use the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Model from Rutgers,” she explains. “Focusing on the whole person.”
The oldest of three children born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Andrea was a translator for her parents and a second parent to her younger siblings from an early age. “Many of the skills I used when I was younger,” she says, “are the same skills I use now.” In short, Andrea has been helping others all her life.
What she loves most about her job is watching her clients make real progress, like when a single mother she was recently working with stopped viewing her situation as a burden and began to see it as a problem that could actually be solved.
“Once they see that we are here to support them through everything,” Andrea explains, “that makes all the difference.”
Front Desk Monitor, University Family Residence
“Be alert. Do your job. Be legit.”
For almost three decades, Ramon has been helping keep VOA-Greater New York clients safe. Having joined the organization in 1995 at our shelter on Ward’s Island, today Ramon uses his many years of experience to look out for residents at one of our transitional shelters for families in the Bronx as the Front Desk Monitor. Whether it’s signing clients in and out of the building, making security rounds every hour, or mediating if a conflict arises, Ramon is always there to make sure things run smoothly and residents feel safe.
His advice for when a situation becomes challenging? “Keep calm, don’t raise your voice and always be kind.”
He recalls a time when the building needed to be evacuated and some residents, having previously experienced the trauma of displacement, refused to leave. Despite the stress of the situation, Ramon maintained a calm demeanor and empathetic tone, and convinced everyone to go. It’s moments like this that make him feel most proud.
When asked what he most likes to do when he has a day off, Ramon says, without the slightest hesitation, “Help people.”
Maintenance III, Webster House
“Sometimes people just need someone to listen.”
Manuel has a big job. As the building superintendent for our 200-unit SRO in the Bronx, he has his work cut out for him. In addition to making sure the building is maintained and functioning properly, he is often called upon to respond to emergencies, like when the basement filled up with over seven feet of water after Hurricane Ida. In addition to having all the skills necessary to fix things like heating and plumbing, Manuel also needs to have a patient demeanor.
“We don’t just do handyman work,” he explains. “People tell us their stories. It’s like we have a foot into the caseworker’s world.” If a client asks for an extra chair or a new mattress, Manuel goes out of his way to try to find one. If a tenant needs help after locking themselves out of an apartment, Manuel comes to the rescue with his master key. If someone needs directions to the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, Manuel shows them where to go.
But sometimes a resident just needs someone to talk to, and that’s when Manuel is happy to lend an ear. “Whatever they need,” he says, “I try the best I can to give them what they want.”
After starting out as an entry-level maintenance worker in 2011, Manuel has worked his way up to Building Engineer and Superintendent over the last ten years. When asked how he has been so successful, he credits his staff and supervisor, Gary, whose understanding he has found invaluable.
As for what a good day at work looks like, he says, with emphasis, “When there are no emergencies.”
But when there is an emergency, he advises the following: “Deep breathing."
Case Manager, Sound Harbor
"If I can help in any way, that's what I do."
Since 2015, Christie has been making a difference in the lives of residents at VOA-Greater New York’s permanent, supportive housing programs for individuals who are living with behavioral health, substance use issues and/or HIV/AIDS.
Most recently, she has been exercising her tender bedside manner at one of our scattered site apartments in the Bronx, where each day she checks on clients to make sure they’re keeping therapy appointments and taking their medicine. She also conducts home visits, making sure that rooms are in good condition and seeing to it that residents have access to healthy food.
If Christie thinks that a client needs to enter a rehabilitation program, she refers them, and while she is sometimes sad to see them leave VOA-Greater New York in those instances, she is always gratified when they call her back months or years later to say, “Thank you, Ms. Vega!” — because then she knows she’s made a positive impact on someone’s life.
Having begun in human services with another provider more than twelve years ago, Christie has served in multiple capacities over the years, including Front Desk Monitor and Resident Assistant, before landing in her current role, which is a natural fit.
“Everyone tells me I have a big heart,” she says. “If I can help in any way, that’s what I do, whether it’s with my kids, my friends, helping someone across the street—that’s just who I am.”
When asked what a good day at work is, Christie replies, without the slightest hesitation, “Every day is a good day.” She adds, “When I go into the office, I like to bring a little sunshine . . . I like to make sure that my people are good.”
Case Manager, Divinity
“Food, water and shelter is good, but it’s not enough if you don’t have love.”
Tameka has long understood the value of emotional connection in helping and healing people. As someone who hails from a family of medical health professionals, and who always wanted to be in a helping profession, she has found her niche as Case Manager at Divinity, one of VOA-Greater New York’s scattered-site apartments that provides permanent housing and support services to individuals who have experienced homelessness.
As Case Manager, Tameka does whatever she needs to do to make sure that clients feel safe and loved, whether that means helping someone get food or clothing, showing an elderly client how to use a smartphone, or giving advice on which cleaning products are best to keep spaces clean. Or sometimes she plays the role of advocate, helping a client switch doctors if they don’t feel like they’ve been receiving proper care. Whatever the need, Tameka is there.
During the pandemic, the job was especially difficult since Tameka was new to VOA-Greater New York, and social distancing mandates made it impossible to meet with clients face-to-face. But despite the challenge, she managed to connect with her residents so well over the phone that by the end of her first year on the job she could identify each of them by their voices alone, which just goes to show that sometimes you don’t need to see people to make a connection strong enough to make a difference.
You just need to reach out, connect and listen.
Human Resources Manager Homeless Services, East Clarke Place Senior Residence and Bronx Early Learning Center
“The moment you stop learning is the moment you stop growing.”
Denise, Human Resources Manager for our Homeless Services, East Clarke Place Senior Residence and Bronx Early Learning Center programs, knows a thing or two about learning and growing. Having started at VOA-Greater New York almost thirty years ago as a receptionist, she has taken on many roles, including Secretary, Administrative Assistant, Office Manager and Assistant HR Manager.
Over the course of the last three decades, Denise has finished a four-year college degree while working full-time and raising a family. She has grown both personally and professionally, learning, along the way, how her facility with human relationships could translate into a career she loves.
Today, Denise enjoys sharing her knowledge with staff, sometimes using role-play to help employees find solutions to problems. She also values her positive attitude, noting that sometimes looking at the bright side of things can make all the difference when faced with dilemmas and tasks.
Above all, though, Denise admires the dedication and commitment of VOA-Greater New York staff, many of whom she helped hire.
“The days that I see I made a difference are what count,” Denise explains.
Maintenance I, Richard F. Salyer House
“A good day is when I feel like I’ve done something good, not for me but for another person.”
This is what motivates Pedro, Maintenance I at Richard F. Salyer House, our permanent, supportive, and affordable housing program in Upper Manhattan. In addition to the general building upkeep and cleaning duties his job requires, Pedro also serves as handyman to the 146-unit facility. That means that if a resident needs a plumbing repair or has a problem with an appliance, it’s Pedro to the rescue!
He’s also instrumental in facilitating unit turnover, always making sure that every apartment is neat, clean, and painted when new individuals or families arrive.
During COVID, Pedro is proud to say that he never missed a day of work, and he was more than happy to work overtime in the interest of helping to keep the clients at Salyer House safe.
In addition to the many physical requirements of his job, Pedro is also careful to always treat each resident with kindness, patience, and respect, because he understands that many times they are dealing with challenging personal situations.
As the parent of three grown children and two dogs, Pedro knows a thing or two about patience. Also, he has some expertise in Human Services, having just completed a college degree in that major, at the age 44!
In addition to his position at Richard F. Salyer House, Pedro is also an active member of VOA-GNY’s Committee for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
When asked what he would most like to do if he had an extra day off, Pedro replies: “Volunteer.”
Front Desk Monitor, Richard F. Salyer House
“Stay calm and keep your composure.”
That is how Ramonita, who has been working as a Front Desk Monitor at VOA-Greater New York for almost 25 years, deals with difficult situations.
For the past 19 years, she has been tending the front desk at Richard F. Salyer House, our supportive, affordable housing program for individuals and families in Upper Manhattan. Because she is the type of person that others feel comfortable confiding in, residents often go to her when they are upset. Ramonita always handles every event with grace, maintaining a soothing tone and advising residents to seek help from their case managers, because, as she reminds them, “That’s what they’re there for—to help!”
With 10 siblings and 39 nieces and nephews, it is perhaps no surprise that Ramonita knows a thing or two about people. Add to this the fact that she spent her childhood accompanying her mother to help people in need at church. In a way, service is in Ramonita’s blood, and treating residents at Salyer House like family comes naturally to her.
“This is like my second home,” Ramonita says, of Salyer House. “And helping people is what I like to do.”
Case Manager & Recreation Manager, Richard F. Salyer House
“You give kindness, you get it back tenfold."
Every day LaTasha brings these words of wisdom to her job as Case Manager and Recreation guru at Richard F. Salyer House, our permanent, supportive housing program in Upper Manhattan for single adults and families with limited incomes. Whether connecting clients to public assistance or planning and decorating for celebrations like Valentine’s Day and Black History Month, LaTasha tackles every task with a generous soul and an open heart.
Sometimes her job entails checking up on clients to see how their doctor’s appointments went or if they need help with cleaning their apartments. Other times she takes on special projects, like recently when she helped a senior tenant find Medicare insurance, which allowed her to access much-needed physical therapy and even a home health aide. The client was so grateful afterward that she sent LaTasha flowers—yellow and pink lilies.
Having grown up in a family that always helped everyone around them (“We always had someone living with us,” LaTasha explains, “Whether family friends or cousins.”), generosity and kindness might just be in her DNA.
“If you were to come to my [family’s] house right now,” LaTasha adds, “They would take you in with open arms.”
Associate Program Director, East 119th Street Veterans Residence
“Sometimes you just have to meet people where they are,” says Taiwo, Associate Program Director at our residence for veterans in Upper Manhattan.
Taiwo’s job is to help make sure veterans get the support they need—that includes everything from making sure health appointments are scheduled to filling out paperwork so clients can get their government benefits. But sometimes clients are hesitant to receive the help that is offered to them. Taiwo understands that a little empathy and patience go a long way. “When a client presents a negative behavior,” she explains, “you can’t be judgmental…you have to ask yourself, why? And then, how can I help?”
At the end of this process, clients are grateful for the support and Taiwo is pleased to be able to make a positive impact in their lives.
Having come from a family committed to community service (Taiwo’s three sisters are all employed in civil service professions and her father worked as a civilian attaché to an embassy), it is perhaps no surprise that she developed a strong desire to help people. When asked when she knew she wanted a career in human services, Taiwo answers, “Always.”
Case Manager Supervisor, Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF)
Meet Kenya, Case Manager Supervisor for our veteran outreach and support services program.
VOA-GNY is one of the largest providers of residential services for veterans within a coalition that has virtually ended homelessness for veterans in NYC and Kenya plays a key part in this.
Through her work, she helps veterans who are homeless find and secure housing, and helps those who are at risk of becoming homeless keep their housing. Sometimes she helps them find a job or apply for government subsidies and permanent housing. Other times, Kenya and her team negotiate with landlords to try to resolve issues like rent arrears.
It’s not an easy job, she admits—sometimes clients are hesitant to do what is needed to qualify for the services to which they, as veterans, are entitled. But a little patience and an empathetic spirit go a long way toward bringing them around. The best, Kenya says, “is when we can help a veteran become self-sufficient, when they don’t need public assistance anymore.”
Kenya hadn’t always planned to have a career in human services. “When I was a kid,” she says, “I wanted to be a dancer or a doctor.” But she stumbled upon the profession when she volunteered for the #headstart program years ago. Kenya found that she loved helping parents do things like apply for public assistance and attend “back-to-work” programs. After that, she decided to pursue a career in social services.
Ten years ago, Kenya was hired at VOA-GNY as an assistant teacher. Since then, she has held many different positions, including Case Manager and Financial Assistance Specialist, all of which she has found fulfilling. “I just like what VOA-GNY does,” she says. “I like giving back.”
Associate Program Director, Schwartz Assessment Shelter
Wave to Rudilania! She’s the Associate Program Director at our assessment shelter on Ward’s Island for men who are homeless. She helps individuals who have fallen on hard times get back on the path toward a better life. If clients are hungry, she helps get them a meal. If they need a job, she helps them find one by connecting them with employment centers or job boards. If they have substance use issues, she refers them to a rehabilitation or peer support program, and if they are experiencing mental health challenges, she connects them with therapy. But perhaps most importantly, Rudilania and her team help clients move out of temporary shelter and into permanent homes of their own.
“The job is sometimes a challenge,” she admits. “Clients are not always cooperative.” But Rudilania always remains calm and exercises patience, two traits that friends and family have noticed in her and admired. And regardless of how difficult the job might become, Rudilania always feels like her efforts are worthwhile when she sees a client achieve his goals.
“I love when I can help someone in any kind of way,” she says. “It just makes me feel good.”
And it’s not just helping clients at the shelter that Rudilania enjoys. She also serves on VOA-GNY’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee—a group of staff volunteers dedicated to ensuring the organization “welcomes diversity, advocates for equity, and achieves inclusion for all.”
Case Manager, East 119th Street Veterans Residence
Meet Ericka, a Case Manager at our SRO for veterans in East Harlem. Ericka’s job is to help formerly homeless veterans “get through this thing we call life,” as she explains it, whether that means setting up therapy sessions, helping them get into drug rehabilitation programs, assisting with budgeting or the job search, or applying for permanent housing.
It isn’t always easy, she admits, but since her father and brother are both veterans, she feels she’s better equipped to understand where her clients are coming from.
Ericka hadn’t always planned to have a career in human services, but she realized she had a knack for it when she took a job working part-time at another VOA-GNY program nine years ago. She remembers a situation where she turned out to be the only one who was able to calm an upset client—and that was it. Ericka decided to devote herself to the helping profession and never looked back.
A good day for Ericka is when she helps a client secure employment or permanent housing. “Just knowing I did something for someone, it’s good enough for me,” she says.
Assistant Program Director, Eden House
Say hello to Jason! He’s the Assistant Program Director at one of our permanent supportive housing programs for individuals who are formerly homeless in the Bronx.
Jason hasn’t always worked in nonprofit. In 2013, he left his job selling real estate during a downturn in the market and applied at VOA-GNY. It was during his interview that someone told Jason he would make a good caseworker—and that was the beginning of a vibrant career devoted to helping people in need.
Eight years later, Jason loves overseeing the staff and services at the 180-unit residence where there is never a dull moment, but there are many instances of shared laughter and causes for celebration! Jason enjoys seeing clients make progress toward their goals, whether that means getting connected with medical services, approved for a cell phone, or moving into their own apartment. Jason especially appreciates when clients come back to thank him and his staff for all their hard work. “It gives you the energy to keep on going,” he says.
An added perk of the job for Jason is that the staff at his program have become like family to him, and he was especially touched when, over the summer, his colleagues threw him a baby shower. As Jason says, “We all have a job to do, but we still find time to come together and celebrate each other.”
In addition to his position at VOA-GNY, Jason and his wife have recently begun an online children’s clothing business, inspired by his new baby girl, Melody (simplykaute.online).
Residential Service Manager, Domestic Violence Shelter
Meet Judith, Residential Service Manager at our domestic violence shelter in Brooklyn, a program she helped launch over 20 years ago. Originally trained as a nurse, Judith has filled many roles, but she is best known for being a strong client advocate. Once a victim herself, Judith has always wanted to give back. “As a survivor,” she says, “you have a lot to offer.”
Once Judith realized she had a gift for this work, she set out to learn everything she could about domestic violence, including educating herself about the different cultures of the clients she serves—Pakistani, African, Hindu, Asian and Hispanic, to name a few—since understanding their beliefs is crucial to helping them overcome their challenges.
In addition to working at the shelter, Judith has always been involved in her community, and she has a strong sense of civic duty. “I will approach anyone on the street if I think something is wrong,” she says. “I can’t walk away.”
Judith has often been recognized by the community for her efforts. In 2017, she received the CPI Medgar Evers Head Start Certificate of Appreciation, in 2018 the Beacon of Hope Award, and in 2019 the Civility Ambassadors Award from I Change Nations. Judith has also co-facilitated the Brooklyn Caribbean Women Health Association HIV/AIDS Education Series, and is active with the United Nations, working closely with the Surinamese Ambassador, Henry Mac Donald, on the “HeforShe” movement.
Acting Program Director, CSS
Meet Jonathan! He works at our shelter on Ward’s Island as the Acting Program Director of our Community Support Services (CSS) program which helps individuals who are homeless and living with behavioral health issues obtain permanent housing.
With just a small team and 65 clients to care for, every day is full of challenges for Jonathan. The first thing he does when he arrives is personally greet each client. Next, he solves any problems that may have arisen overnight and meets with clients to talk about things like housing readiness, substance use relapse prevention and COVID-19 compliance. It’s hard work, but Jonathan finds it rewarding, especially when former clients come back to thank him—like the man who reconnected with family in Puerto Rico thanks to assistance from Jonathan’s team. He returned to tell the team how much VOA-GNY changed his life!
In his twelve years at VOA-GNY, Jonathan has been busy. He was promoted every year during his first five years at the organization and has held seven different positions overall. Now, Jonathan is pursuing a college degree in addition to managing the program on Ward’s Island.
The oldest of seven siblings, Jonathan has always been good with people and conflict resolution. A true team player, he loves spending time with his staff and celebrating their milestones and accomplishments. Jonathan’s also been a football fan ever since he was a child. He still plays flag football every Sunday!
Administrative Assistant , Bronx Early Learning Center
Give Doreen a wave! She’s the Administrative Assistant at our preschool for children with developmental delays and disabilities in the Bronx. In fact, she’s worked at the school for over 30 years in multiple capacities, including as teacher. There’s nothing about the Bronx Early Learning Center that Doreen doesn’t know! In her current role, she does everything from purchase supplies to manage any crises that may arise. “You name it — I do it,” she explains.
And Doreen loves what she does.
She’s been helping children ever since she came home late one cold winter night from her job at a Manhattan insurance company to find three neighborhood children out on the street. Not only did Doreen help those kids that night, but she wound up taking them in and raising them as her own! Shortly afterward, Doreen left the insurance company and joined VOA-GNY.
What Doreen loves most about her job is “feeling like the clients are family.” And no matter what the challenge is, Doreen is always willing to help. “I don’t judge,” she says. “I’m just here to help. And I’m a great listener.”
When Doreen is not helping children and their families, she can be found roller-skating, reading, bowling, or spending time with her great-granddaughter.
Director of Adult Residential Services, Northern New Jersey
This is Kathryn! She’s the director of our residential programs in Northern New Jersey for adults living with mental health issues. Kathryn’s team helps clients live as independently as possible, assisting with medical appointments, symptom management and life skills development (e.g. learning to budget and shop for groceries).
“My staff are the frontlines,” Kathryn explains, “and I know they count on me for support.” A good day is when there is a lot of laughing and nobody requires a trip to the hospital. Kathryn also loves when someone on her team gets promoted. “I love to watch people succeed,” she says.
As for herself, Kathryn has dreamed of a career in human services ever since she first saw the movie “Ordinary People.” She was moved by the way the psychologist, played by Judd Hirsch, helped the young man who’d witnessed a family tragedy. Kathryn also grew up in a family devoted to charity. Her parents were always active in the community and every summer they traveled from New Jersey to Harlem to build homes for people in need.
A self-described straight-shooter with a great sense of humor, Kathryn once rode a bicycle from Boston to NYC for the “NYC for AIDS” ride in 1998—helping people even when she’s having fun!
Housing Specialist, Bushwick Family Residence
Imagine moving from a small room in a shelter, to a beautiful apartment that’s all your own! As a Housing Specialist at our shelter in Bushwick, that’s what Litishia works hard every day to achieve for families experiencing homelessness.
Sometimes her job involves calling landlords all over the city, trying to convince them to accept government-issued housing vouchers. Other times, she negotiates rent or fills out paperwork. Even through the worst of the pandemic, Litishia worked tirelessly to navigate the new rules so families could secure a safe, permanent place to call “home.”
Litishia became passionate about helping families when she worked at a domestic violence shelter and saw a three-year-old boy come in with a broken arm. “It’s all about the kids,” she says. “Children should have safe spaces [to grow up in].”
The work is not always easy, Litishia admits. “People who come into shelter can sometimes be nervous, angry or scared. You just have to think about how they might be feeling."
About her colleagues, Litishia says, “We are a team with a capital T. Whenever I’m out, I know my coworker has my back. Together, we never miss an opportunity to help a client.” And it’s always a good day when Litishia hears them say, “I got my keys!”
When not at work, Litishia enjoys cooking soul food or Italian, and hopes to one day open her own restaurant. And, on top of everything else, she recently got her real estate license!
Director of Maintenance
Have you met Anthony? He’s the Director of Maintenance and jack of all trades for two of our supportive housing programs on the Upper West Side.
Anthony and his team are responsible for the buildings inside and out. His day usually starts at 5am with a trip to Home Depot to get supplies. Whether a small paint job or a plumbing emergency, his team is on it!
But working at VOA-GNY isn’t all about maintenance for Anthony, who’s no stranger to struggle himself. As a young man, Anthony spent time on the streets. He appreciates the support he received from family when he needed it most and doesn’t hesitate to help others when he can. “Sometimes people just want to talk,” Anthony says. “I can’t give them money, but I can give them love.”
A self-described people person, Anthony enjoys the company of both clients and staff. “We open up and talk to each other and I try to be hilarious,” he says. “The staff is like family, and when I say family, I don’t mean we always get along — I mean a family like brothers and sisters — you don’t always get along, but we are joined by a common purpose.”
On weekends, you can catch Anthony playing drums in a progressive gospel music band at Grace and Mercy Cathedral in Brooklyn.
Program Director, East New York SRO
Meet Rithel! In his youth, Rithel experienced firsthand the value of human services organizations like VOA-GNY. Now, as the Program Director of our SRO in East New York, he uses that experience to create a safe and caring environment where clients feel supported and respected as human beings.
Rithel explains that even during the beginning stages of COVID, when New Yorkers were anxious and scared, clients and staff felt safe and calm. One woman thanked him “from the bottom of her heart” for making her feel secure while the rest of the world, as seen on TV, was in upheaval.
Serving others is at the heart of Rithel’s life outside of VOA-GNY, too. He’s a motivational speaker for at-risk youth and has addressed many organizations, including Mount Hall Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, and St. John’s Home for Boys, among others. He’s also volunteered with NYCHA Community Centers and is currently starting his own nonprofit dedicated to helping youth.
Rithel is a self-described music connoisseur (jazz, hip hop, country—he loves it all!) and enjoys throwing “conversation parties,” where he brings a wide variety of people together to discuss topics of interest such as: “What does police reform really look like?” In short, Rithel is a charismatic extrovert who fosters community and knows how to inspire people to become their best selves.
Associate Program Director, Webster House
Say hello to Lorinda, Associate Program Director at our SRO in the Bronx. Lorinda’s role requires her to wear many hats. From supervisor to teacher, social worker to problem solver, Lorinda is the person you call when times get tough.
Although she is no stranger to crisis, COVID-19 made her job more difficult. “We were all scared," she says. "We didn’t know what we were dealing with.” But Lorinda and her team knew that clients were counting on them. “We banded together and gave each other support.”
On top of their usual responsibilities, Lorinda’s staff handed out masks and hand sanitizer, made sure everyone practiced social distancing, and, perhaps most importantly, checked on clients to make sure they were safe multiple times a day. If someone was missing, they called all the area hospitals until that person was found. “At first,” Lorinda says, “Some people were annoyed we were checking on them so much, but once we explained that it was for their own safety, then they understood.”
And all that hard work paid off—out of 180+ clients, not one life at Lorinda’s program was lost, and very few people became ill. “My faith kept me going,” she says. “I start off every day with prayer and meditation.”
Lorinda also keeps herself focused by using what she refers to as her “self-care toolbox.” Whether that means taking time to connect with family and friends or relaxing with her favorite music (old school R&B, reggae, jazz) or movies (Black Panther, TheColorPurple), Lorinda knows that a little time for yourself is one of the best ways to keep up the energy needed for taking care of others.
Program Director, Salyer House
Meet Kim! She’s Program Director at our permanent supportive housing program for families and older adults in Upper Manhattan.
“When COVID began, it was our natural reaction to jump into action,” she explains. Staff got groceries for tenants who were in isolation, picked up their prescriptions, and made sure they had activities to pass the time."
Prior to COVID, the program often hosted social events—from pot-luck dinners to fashion shows and holiday parties—which fostered a sense of family among staff and tenants. Of course, sometimes feeling like family made things difficult, like when a tenant Kim was close to passed away. “I was really impacted,” Kim explained. “[Our clients] become a part of our lives.”
For as long as Kim can remember, she has wanted to help people. “I was that little girl who was upset to see homeless people in the subway,” she says, “and I couldn’t stand the idea that other kids didn’t have a home.”
Years later, when Kim was working at a Midtown finance company, she would take care packages to homeless people on the street near her office. Before long, she recruited a friend to help her and together they would bring food to people in need during their lunch hours. For Kim, it was a true calling—so much so that when the company she was working for announced there would be layoffs, she was happy. Now she could pursue missionary work full time!
And it was that work that eventually led Kim to VOA-GNY, where she has worked for over five years. “It’s a labor of love,” she says.
Housing Specialist, University Family Residence
Wave to Bennie! He’s the housing specialist at one of our family shelters in the Bronx. Out of the 65 families that this shelter can accommodate, Bennie is responsible for moving at least seven into permanent housing every 2-3 months—a challenge from which he never shrinks! Whether this means filling out forms on a family’s behalf, providing reference letters or negotiating with landlords, Bennie will do whatever it takes to see his clients regain their independence.
Although Bennie was worried for himself and his family when COVID first began, he never lost sight of the fact that his work is essential. “If I don’t come to work, who is going to help all those people secure housing?” he says.
Even when there was a shortage of PPE and a skeleton crew when colleagues became ill, Bennie never missed a day. “I don’t believe in defeat,” he explains. “I believe it’s a lesson, and the lesson is that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
For as long as he can remember, Bennie has felt a deep desire to help people. In addition to working at VOA-GNY, Bennie started a nonprofit that helps at-risk youth get their records sealed and connects them to counseling services. Bennie will never forget when his brother had a drug problem and nobody would help. The way Bennie sees it, he does this work because he would want someone to do the same for him. Bennie also says, he loves to be part of the solution. “When you do something you love, it ain’t work!”
Program Director, Rose House
This is Yvette, Program Director at one of our permanent supportive housing residences on the Upper West Side.
Yvette and her team have always been a tight-knit group, but when the pandemic hit, they came together like never before. They sewed masks when there was a shortage and checked on clients every single day. Clients made the best of things too. “Some learned new skills,” Yvette explains, “and others learned to trust us more than they had in the past.” They began realize just how much VOA-Greater New York staff care.
There was one moment, though, that Yvette will never forget: the day EMS workers showed up in hazmat suits for a client who was having trouble breathing. “I could see the panic in his face,” she recalls. “He was afraid to go to the hospital because he was sure it was a death sentence.” Yvette felt helpless as she watched the ambulance take him away. But the client recovered, and when he returned from the hospital, Yvette was overjoyed. It was a celebratory moment!
Despite having her hands full during the pandemic, Yvette recently completed her Master’s in social work at Hunter College. To relax, Yvette loves to draw and design clothing, or crochet—especially hats and scarves. She also loves interior design. She’s a true renaissance woman!
Environmental Manager, Grasslands Shelter
Say “Hi!” to Gerrard, the Environmental Manager at our homeless shelter for men, women and couples in Westchester County. Chances are, he’ll send a loud and cheerful “Hello!” right back!
Gerrard oversees building maintenance—everything from plumbing to government inspections. During the pandemic, though it was challenging, Gerrard never lost sight of our mission. When colleagues got sick, he filled in, even if that meant working 7 days straight. When the program ran out of hand sanitizer and there was none to be found anywhere, he got creative and rented a machine from Viking Pure Solutions that turns water into an environmentally-safe sanitizer.
Always one to see the positive side, Gerrard explains that because of the pandemic, clients who had been content living at the shelter became motivated to take advantage of independent housing opportunities—which is always VOA-GNY’s end goal. Another unforgettable moment was when staff worked with the health department to get clients vaccinated. “Clients who would normally not trust the government or a doctor chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they trusted VOA-GNY staff,” he says. “It was wonderful to see.”
Gerrard loves helping people and wouldn’t trade his job for anything in the world. Having spent time in prison, he knows that sometimes good people find themselves in bad situations, but that it’s always possible to turn your life around, and he loves sharing that lesson with clients.
“Any time you get to wake up in the morning is a privilege,” says Gerrard. When he’s not at work, he enjoys traveling and has hiked or cycled in Egypt, South Korea, South Africa, Belgium, and Croatia—to name a few!
Employment Specialist, Jamaica Women's Employment Shelter
Meet Camille! She’s the Employment Specialist at our shelter in #Queens for women experiencing homelessness. She plays a key role in helping clients regain their independence by helping them find employment, connecting them to job training, and more.
When the pandemic hit and things went virtual, Camille not only had to adjust to changes in her own job, she had to help clients adapt as well. Job interviews and recruitment events moved online. Some of the women adjusted easily, while others struggled. Camille was there throughout to provide encouragement and support.
And Camille knows a thing or two about adversity. A little over ten years ago, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm—an event so disruptive that she had to re-learn all the basics, including walking and talking. She didn’t know if she would ever become self-sufficient again. But not only did Camille persevere, she went on to achieve even more than she had ever imagined was possible, including earning two Masters degrees and landing a fulfilling job at VOA-GNY.
One of the ways Camille got through COVID was by writing her personal story—a beautiful and moving narrative about her struggle and how she came out of it stronger. She published “The Unexpected Journey” in May 2021 (available to order through @Amazon and @BarnesandNoble). Sharing her story also helps her connect with clients; they realize that she, too, knows what it’s like to overcome obstacles.
Camille aspires to write and publish more books in the self-help genre.
Community Liaison & Wellness Coordinator, Wales Avenue Residence
This is Christopher! He works at our supportive housing program in the Bronx for adults and youth with behavioral health issues. He’s responsible for the overall wellbeing of clients—everything from making sure they’re eating and bathing, to helping them find a job by connecting them to employment agencies.
Christopher—who lives with a significant health diagnosis—felt very conflicted when the pandemic first began. He was scared because, if he were to get COVID-19, his underlying condition put him at risk of severe illness. On the other hand, as an extrovert, he knew his mental health would suffer greatly if he stayed home by himself.
Christopher also knew how much his clients needed him. “Some people just don’t have anyone else,” he said. So, he continued to show up.
Day after day, Christopher double masked and came to work despite the risk, ready to ensure clients had everything they needed. And they, in turn, helped keep his spirits up.
Many years ago, when Christopher was working in a restaurant, he had an epiphany. “Instead of serving steak,” he thought, “I could serve people!” So he changed his vocation to human services and never looked back.
At the end of each day, to care for his own wellbeing, Christopher likes to relax with his two cats, and listen to jazz or watch a cooking show.
Recreation Assistant, Regent Family Residence
Meet Tristian—though he mostly goes by “Mr. Rob” (a nod to his last name) around the halls of our family shelter on the Upper West Side where he works as teacher, entertainer, art instructor, field trip monitor, older brother, mentor… a.k.a. Recreation Assistant.
Day to day, Tristian helps the kids who participate in Recreation (an optional afterschool program at the shelter) with their homework, assists with art projects, takes them to museums or on picnics, and keeps them smiling as much as he can.
An ideal day on the job is when all the kids get their homework done, play some games and then watch a movie together. “It’s like we’re a giant family,” he says.
When the pandemic hit, some activities were moved online, but others were put on hold. It was difficult not seeing the children regularly or in-person, but Tristian managed to still stay connected.
Helping people runs in Tristian’s family. As a kid, he would sit with his mom while she studied for her social worker exams, trying to learn everything he could. He’ll never forget when she told him, “You know what? You really could do this!”
Through this job, Tristian discovered that he loves to paint, and often spends his days off painting landscapes—or his other favorite…unicorns!—using acrylics.
Case Manager, Crossroads Residence
Say “Hello!” to Stephen, Case Manager at our behavioral health and substance use program in #Westchester.
Stephen first came to us as a client in 2001—to the same program where he works now. His story lives up to our belief that anyone can turn their lives around.
As a Case Manager, he provides emotional support to residents—his own lived experience is valuable for this—and he helps them prepare for re-entry into the community by finding employment and securing housing.
During the pandemic, Stephen never missed a day of work because he knew how much his clients needed him. “I always go back to 2001,” he says, “I knew without that support it was going to be hard to remain clean and sober.”
Outside of his job at VOA-GNY, Stephen is a bit of a local legend. In 1979, as a member of the Westchester Community College basketball team, he became the all-time leader in both scoring and rebounding, records that have yet to be surpassed. After that, he transferred to American International College, where he played Division II basketball. In 2009, Stephen was inducted into the WCC #HallofFame. “It was thrilling,” he says.
Front Desk Monitor, Lydia E. Hoffman Family Residence
Meet Rachel, Front Desk Monitor at our transitional family shelter in the Bronx.
Though her current role is administrative, she has been brightening the lives of families experiencing homelessness for over 24 years, including in the former Recreation Center. She helps celebrate children’s birthdays, hands out donations, lends an ear, and much more.
When COVID began, Rachel adapted easily, adding temperature checks and PPE distribution to her list of things to do. Although she experienced anxiety about her own wellbeing, Rachel never let her fears stop her from showing up. She knew her co-workers on the #frontlines were counting on her, and she didn’t want to let them down.
In her spare time, Rachel loves to shop, go bowling and play pool. But more than anything else, Rachel loves to help people. “I love being able to make a positive difference in someone’s day,” she explains, “or when someone comes to me with a problem that I can help solve.”
Nurse, Bronx Early Learning Center
Meet Randy, the nurse at our preschool for children with developmental delays and disabilities in the Bronx. On a normal day, Randy’s job includes managing medical records, keeping track of students’ allergies, and treating minor bumps or bruises.
But during COVID, when children were no longer in school, her focus became supporting the families, many of whom already experienced the difficulties that come with living at or below the poverty line. Randy was a vital source of information, sharing resources, helping families find COVID testing sites, and patiently explained what was going on as best she could.
Randy remembers when the sibling of a student was admitted to the ICU—she spoke to that parent every single day for two weeks, reassuring her. Now she says she’s closer to the families than ever before.
Randy didn’t always know she wanted to be a nurse. She used to play guitar in an all-girl rock band called The Vibrations. They toured Europe and cut three albums.
But then fate intervened. Randy was nearby when a woman was hit by a car in a parking lot. Everyone panicked except for Randy, who calmly took control of the situation. A stranger asked if she ever considered becoming an EMT. Soon after, Randy signed up for an EMT program and says she knew it was for her within the first five minutes.
Front Desk Monitor, East New York Residence
Meet Edna. For twelve years, she’s been a shining light to staff and clients at our permanent supportive housing program in East New York, Brooklyn. A Front Desk Monitor, she does everything from help tenants who are locked out, to call 911 in an emergency.
Originally trained as a #nurse, Edna is no newcomer to #essential work. When the pandemic began, many of the safety protocols were business as usual for her. She was also used to remaining calm under pressure, which helped the tenants feel safe.
Before starting at VOA-GNY, Edna spent many years at another nonprofit. It’s as if social services is in her DNA. “When you perform a service for others, you have a drive—a zeal,” she explains. It keeps her energized.
It also doesn’t hurt that Edna maintains plenty of balance in her life. In her spare time, she visits seniors in nursing homes. She also attends music classes—she has recently taken up the trombone—women’s meetings, family gatherings, and church where there’s a group called The Young Person’s Music Group. She tells herself that she is young, so whenever they’re having a practice, “I just put my name down and go!”
Secretary, Richard F. Salyer House
Meet Michael (a.k.a. Juan Bago), Secretary at our supportive housing residence in Upper Manhattan.
For 19 years, Michael has been keeping the building’s finances in order, which includes collecting rent from tenants—many of whom are seniors. At the height of the pandemic, some tenants were too scared to leave to get money orders for rent, and instead waited for friends or family to bring them. “We helped these individuals by being flexible with our deadlines” Michael explained.
A social person, Michael says the hardest part of the past year was not interacting face-to-face with clients. “That really took a toll. It took away the spirit.” Remaining optimistic has helped. “We got through [the pandemic in] 1918 and we came back from 9/11. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Michael also believes humor is important—perhaps not surprising given that he moonlights as a successful sketch comedian. On his list of achievements is the podcast Latinos Out Loud, which was recently nominated for a Webby.
Maintenance III, East 12th Street Residence
Meet Rudy, live-in super at our residence for seniors in the East Village. If there is a problem in the building, Rudy is the man to call! For over ten years, he’s been maintaining the premises, scheduling city inspections and liaising with vendors. He can fix a broken boiler, repair a handrail, or stop a leaky faucet. On top of that, Rudy is always available to tend to the needs of tenants.
Last spring, Rudy became sick before COVID-19 tests were even available. Although he didn't know for sure if it was COVID, he went home, isolated, and never ate so much chicken soup in his life!
Once Rudy made a full recovery, he immediately got back to work, helping with whatever was needed—even escorting people to and from the hospital when he could. The times he couldn't were the hardest. “You knew they were scared, and sometimes you didn’t know if they were coming back.”
Rudy got through by keeping a light heart and a sense of humor. “Sometimes people just see me and start laughing,” he says.
Born in the West Indies and having lived in England, Rudy is a diehard Manchester United fan. He loves to ride his bike, go bowling (he’s in a league) and has an interest in home decoration. “I love just getting up and doing things in life.”
Driver, Schwartz Assessment Shelter
Meet Sonia, a Driver for our shelter on Ward’s Island for men who are homeless. Given the remote location, Sonia’s job is essential. Clients rely on her for rides to and from important housing or medical appointments. For staff, she picks up packages and makes trips to the bank. She also transports donations, like holiday gifts, to other VOA-GNY programs.
But when COVID-19 hit, Sonia’s job suddenly changed. Nobody was going to in-person appointments. She adapted by being flexible, lending a hand anywhere it was needed—in reception, the cafeteria, with maintenance. She put together PPE kits with masks and sanitizing wipes for clients. “When we work together, we get things done,” she says, adding, “I’m the Make-It-Happen Queen around here.”
Although Sonia was scared about her own safety—she suffers from chronic asthma—she tried to keep things in perspective. “We can’t just think about us,” she says. “We have to think about [our clients and coworkers] too.”
Most days, you’ll find Sonia smiling. She wants to enjoy life. For many years she played in an adult softball league. She has two sons: one is an MTA driver, the other owns a gym. When asked whether she is partial to the Yankees or Mets, she says, “Yankees, of course!”
Clinical Art Therapist, Domestic Violence Shelter
Meet Ariel, Clinical Art Therapist at one of our shelters for families recovering from domestic violence. Every day she helps survivors, including children, heal from emotional trauma using art and different artistic mediums.
When the pandemic hit last year, Ariel, who was also in the early stages of pregnancy, continued to showed up day after day, donning PPE and doing the best she could for her clients.
Ariel remembers one client who was experiencing a high level of anxiety. To calm her down, she took her into a room where they could social distance, put on soft music, and showed her how to finger weave with yarn. The repetitiveness of the task was just what the client needed—one small thing that she could control. Ariel gave the client some yarn to take back to her room, so she could continue the calming task even when she was alone.
Always one to find a silver lining, Ariel says her walk home from work has been a positive outcome of the pandemic. She started walking to avoid the subway at the height of the crisis and now looks forward to using that time to decompress and practice self-care after a long day.
Senior Nurse, Northern New Jersey CSS & Behavioral Health Services
Meet Camellia, Senior Nurse for our behavioral health residential programs and community support services in Northern New Jersey. Camellia grew up in a family where a caring spirit mattered. Her mother worked in a hospital and was always helping people at church. Perhaps that is why Camellia felt called to become a nurse from as far back as eleventh grade.
Much of Camellia’s work at VOA-GNY involves providing support to adults with developmental disabilities and/or mental health challenges. When asked what it takes to get through a tough day, her answer is patience and an open heart.
The most difficult part of the pandemic, she says, was telling elderly clients they’d have to abandon their normal routines and self-isolate. She recalls the heartbreaking looks of disappointment on their faces as she spoke to them through a mask, which made it all feel so impersonal. Camellia says she got through by staying calm and focusing on the task at hand: keeping everyone safe, healthy and engaged, despite the need to stay distanced.
A good day for her is when she can make someone smile. “I’m a hugger and a smiler,” Camellia says. “An old soul.”
Operations Manager, Schwartz Assessment Shelter
Meet April, Operations Manager at our assessment shelter on Ward’s Island for men who are homeless.
During the early stages of COVID, when places normally open to the public such as airports were closing their doors, April had her work cut out for her. Often, men who had long been used to living in public spaces did not want to move. But April spoke patiently with each person she came across, letting them know how dangerous the virus was and how it would be best to find placement in shelter.
Patience is key for April. Recently she sat with a man at the shelter who tested positive for COVID and left the hospital against doctor’s orders. He refused to isolate. But April took the time to listen to him explain how he had felt all alone at the hospital, because he believed nobody cared for him. “I care about you,” April explained, and convinced the man that by self-isolating, he wouldn’t just be helping himself, but also others. And then, April said, “His eyes lit up. Some people just want to matter.”
Many years ago, before April worked at VOA-GNY, she was a manager at a video store. A friend asked her if she wanted to interview for a bookkeeping job at a social services agency — they offered her a job working with clients instead.
April took that job and never looked back. She has no regrets.
Maintenance I, Bushwick Family Residence
Meet Vernon, a beloved maintenance worker at our transitional family shelter in Bushwick. Vernon has worked for VOA-GNY for over eight years. Prior to that, he worked in the very same building doing the very same job for many years. Vernon’s supervisor, Anton, says, “When VOA-GNY took over the building from another provider in 2013, Vernon was like an extra perk in the deal.”
Vernon has always taken pride in his work, but when COVID-19 hit last spring, he took the job more seriously than ever before, sanitizing all surfaces—including every door handle in the shelter—multiple times a day.
Although it has always been in Vernon’s nature to be friendly and sociable, he has taken extra pains to maintain proper social distancing and refrain from shaking hands during the pandemic. He especially misses high fiving the children in the hallway!
On his days off, Vernon loves to watch basketball (he’s a Lakers fan) and horror movies. But after a couple of days of rest, Vernon always feels refreshed and ready to get back to work.
Sector Director, NYC Homeless & Community Support Services
Meet Alvaro, Sector Director of NYC Homeless & Community Support Services at VOA-GNY. When COVID-19 first struck last spring, Alvaro—who oversees our shelter on Ward’s Island for 335 men who are homeless—jumped into action like a hero. Social distancing was impossible at the dormitory-style shelter where beds are 3 feet apart, so at a moment’s notice, Alvaro and his team moved 150+ men to a second location where they had individual rooms. At a time when nobody yet fully understood the virus, Alvaro worked tirelessly round the clock, often with a reduced staff (since some became sick themselves), to manage both locations, keep the facilities disinfected, provide meals, admit new clients—sometimes at 2am—all while risking his own health. As difficult as it was, especially during the height of the crisis, Alvaro is proud to say that not one life was lost.
When asked what drew him to a career in human services, Alvaro mentions having grown up in a community in Costa Rica where empathy and taking care of others was the norm. It felt like a natural fit.
Prior to coming to VOA-GNY, Alvaro lived in Africa, Europe and South America. He is fluent in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.