East Harlem stands out as one of the poorest sections of Manhattan, where a faith-based organization—the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service (www.littlesistersfamily.org)—has been helping families cope with poverty-related problems for four decades. “Our mission is to work with the poorest, which in New York City means the most recent immigrants,” said its executive director, Sister Judith Garson, who spoke with me in the rented row house that serves as the organization’s headquarters. Currently the majority are Mexicans, but there are also West Africans and Muslim families from the Middle East. Life for all is a struggle.
Take work. The events of 9/11 have had the ripple effect of reducing the number of service jobs that the families’ breadwinners depend upon. The undocumented status of some complicates matters still further—though even they, Sister Garson said, pay taxes as a necessary step toward regularizing their immigration status.
Housing is a special problem because of ever-escalating rents. “The people are terrified of losing their apartments,” she reported. “Many of them spend up to 50 percent of their income on rent.” Faced with high rents, families often run out of food, so in addition to its other services, the organization has a food pantry tied in with an advocacy program. Requests for food may reveal still more threatening problems, like eviction notices, which the advocacy office helps to address, along with other problems like landlord-tenant tensions.
Much of the work involves visits by staff members, both lay and religious, to the homes of families who need assistance. The overall thrust is toward “finding the families’ strengths and working with them as they move toward independence,” Sister Garson observed. She added, however, that because of the longstanding nature of their difficulties, progress must be “measured in inches.”
Health-related issues can be especially problematical, with asthma high on the list; she called East Harlem “the asthma capital” of the city. Environmental factors may be the main triggers. Mold in deteriorated housing and cockroaches are among the suspects, but also, she believes, are diesel fumes from the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s garages in the neighborhood.
Currently, the organization’s offices occupy space in five leased locations that house the programs: family life (which includes classes in English as a second language), family support, early childhood, the advocacy and emergency services program and direct nursing services (the original core program).
But this situation is changing, as construction proceeds on a new facility that will bring all the services together, a long-desired goal. As we walked to the site and observed the work in progress, Sister Garson said that despite the larger space the new building will offer, the goal is not to “get bigger,” as she put it, but to have everything functioning more effectively under one roof while staying small enough as an organization to know people—the key to creating supportive relationships.
A campaign to raise funds for carrying the new building to completion is under way. Day-to-day funding must be obtained separately through a combination of state and city moneys, grants from foundations and private donations. The latter account for the major portion of what must be raised—60 percent. Sister Garson described the various revenue sources as being “cobbled together” to produce what is needed for the annual budget. Like any group that works with the poor, raising enough for daily operating expenses is a constant challenge. But Sister Garson emphasized that no poor person seeking help—medical, social or other—is ever turned away for lack of resources like health insurance.
Going the extra mile has always been the norm ever since the organization—a mix of sisters of various orders (Sister Garson is a Religious of the Sacred Heart) and lay staff members and volunteers—got under way in 1958. As the number of religious continues to decline nationwide, she said, the role of dedicated lay staffers and volunteers will assume ever greater importance.