We’re starting a new series called #FrontlineFriday, featuring some of the many essential staff at Volunteers of America-Greater New York (VOA-GNY) who have showed up every day, throughout the pandemic, to keep our neighbors in need safe. Meet them below and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn for more!
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.