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!
Associate Program Director, Webster House
Say hello to Lorinda, Associate Program Director at our 200-unit #SRO in the #Bronx. Under normal circumstances, Lorinda’s position 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 than ever before. “In the beginning,” she says, “We were all scared—we didn’t know what we were dealing with.”
But Lorinda and her staff knew that clients were counting on them. “We banded together and gave each other support.”
In addition to their usual responsibilities, Lorinda’s staff distributed 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. When asked what kept her going during that difficult time, Lorinda does not hesitate to answer: “My faith,” 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 taking a little time for yourself can sometimes be the best way 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.