Our series called #FrontlineFriday features some of the many essential workers 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.
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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.