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Safety Nets That Sustain Community

Antonia Bernal was nervous about running errands. She was frustrated with making new friends. And she was tired of waiting 20 minutes for an interpreter to help her with doctor appointments for her daughter, Alexa.

She felt very different from the confident woman she had been before moving to New York.

So four years after arriving in the United States, she made a change.

“Literacy Partners made me go back to the person I was in Mexico,” Ms. Bernal said. “Now I feel incredible. I feel empowered.”

Ms. Bernal was introduced to Literacy Partners, which helps low-income and immigrant parents and caregivers improve their reading and language skills, and began participating virtually in its English for Parents program in October 2020.

In a little over a year, Ms. Bernal said, her English improved significantly. She is now working as a babysitter, and is proud to be able to give advice in English about childhood development. She no longer needs an interpreter at medical appointments and she recently helped translate for another Spanish-speaker she met at the hospital, a far cry from when she relied on translation software or deferred to her husband, who speaks some English.

“I feel really, really good, because now I know I can help other people,” Ms. Bernal said.

Ms. Bernal, 30, has now taken on a formal role in helping others through Literacy Partners, which received a grant from The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund’s endowment this year.

Romelia Corvacho, who recently took on a new role as Literacy Partners’ health equity manager, recruited Ms. Bernal to be a parent ambassador for Literacy Partners’ programs in her community. Those include initiatives begun in response to the pandemic, which aim to improve health care in low-income Black and immigrant families. Some of the efforts seek to help parents understand pediatricians’ advice and educate New Yorkers on the benefits of Covid-19 vaccines.

“Our goals are really to provide that social support, to be able to identify how can we help the students move to the next step,” Ms. Corvacho said.

The Neediest Cases Fund is supporting nine organizations in its annual campaign. And its endowment, which receives donations larger than $100,000, also distributes grants. Other grant recipients this year addressed food insecurity in New York City and focused on community building.

City Harvest used a grant to support food banks in the city, including one run by Hour Children in Queens. Hour Children focuses on serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, but also has a food pantry that is open to all community members. During the pandemic, the pantry began serving about 200 people a day, three days a week, compared with 70 people before the pandemic began. (City Harvest is also part of the network of Feeding America, a beneficiary agency of The Neediest Cases Fund.)

Jaclyn Terrasi, who lives nearby, had sporadically turned to the pantry when she and her daughter, Giovanna, were short on food. But when she quit her job as a marketing coordinator at a construction company in September 2020 in order to help Giovanna with remote school, their needs became greater.

“Things were tight,” Ms. Terrasi said. “It helps so much.”

At the food bank, Ms. Terrasi, 37, has been able to stock up on basics, and she got frozen pizza and chicken wings for Giovanna’s birthday party, when she turned 7 in August.

Ms. Terrasi said a staff member sometimes even let her know if extra peppers, cucumbers or carrots were available for her guinea pig, Rainbow.

“People truly want to help, which is nice and refreshing,” Ms. Terrasi said. “It really helps my daughter and I get through tough times.”

Citymeals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to older adults in New York City, also received a grant this year from The Fund’s endowment.

“About 14 percent of all of our meal recipients are getting by on just that one meal a day,” said Catharine Bufalino, director of marketing and communications.

Many of the group’s clients are homebound, including Doris Rodriguez, who, after a lifetime of acting as a caregiver, now relies on others.

Citymeals supplies her with a daily hot meal, which she supplements with side dishes she prepares. An attendant helps with groceries and tasks around her home in Harlem, as Ms. Rodriguez’s lupus and fibromyalgia can make movement difficult.

“I used to be a very strong person,” Ms. Rodriguez, 71 and a former secretary, said. “But I have no energy anymore.”

In her early years, Ms. Rodriguez helped her mother raise three younger siblings. She spent her middle years helping to raise a relative’s children, and her later years caring for her older brother, mother and stepfather before their deaths. The assistance she receives allows her to continue living on her own.

The importance of staying in one’s own home is what brought Francisco Palma to Neighborhood Housing Services of Queens. When Mr. Palma, 67, was first connected with the group, he arrived at its office almost in tears because he was about to lose his house.

Mr. Palma moved to New York from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1984 and had saved enough to buy a home by 2005. A misunderstanding of mortgage terms and payment options led him to Neighborhood Housing Services two years later.

“Being able to live in a dignified home helps the individual, but also stabilizes the community,” said Yoselin Genao Estrella, executive director of the group.

The organization served as a lifeline for Mr. Palma, directing him to government financing and economic literacy resources to save his home.

“They have helped me from then, until now,” said Mr. Palma, who is retired from working at a delivery service. “Whatever I need help with.”

Neighborhood Housing Services of Queens receives support from the Hispanic Federation, another group that received a grant from The Neediest Cases Fund. The grant this year helped bolster nonprofits serving Latino communities.

This summer, Mr. Palma’s basement was flooded in Hurricane Ida, forcing him to dip into savings to recover.

“I was close to bankruptcy,” he said.

He turned to Neighborhood Housing Services of Queens and received help applying for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He credits the local group for helping not just him, but also others in need.

“I’ve seen how hard they work, how attentive they are to everyone’s needs,” he said, “the complete attention they give to all.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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