On Monday morning, while many New Yorkers cuddled on couches, chowing down on stashes of non-perishable goodies while waiting in anticipation for a storm of biblical proportions, 71-year-old Francisco Diaz from Maspeth, Queens, was heading into work to deliver meals to homebound seniors.
“My daughter said, ‘Papi, are you crazy! Don’t go out in this storm.’ I told her I had to. People need food. I need to bring it to them,” he said.
Francisco is one of 19 staff members of the Queens Community House home-delivered meals program who braved Hurricane Sandy on Monday and again on Wednesday to ensure that the seniors who depend on them were not left hungry.Seniors are just one of the groups served by Queens Community House (QCH), a private nonprofit organization that provides educational, recreational and support services to youth and immigrants as well. Most of its funding for its services to 25,000 Queens residents each year is provided by government contracts from city, state and federal agencies.
On Monday eight vans filled with 520 meals travelled a lonely road from Forest Hills, where QCH is headquartered, to Corona, Elmhurst and Rego Park. The sight of the staff surprised everyone they encountered, particularly the clients who greeted them with effusive gratitude. After watching the doomsday reports about the storm on television, most had assumed that they wouldn’t be receiving their meals.
“Nobody complained about coming into work that day,” said Ann Oniszko, QCH’s transportation coordinator. “In fact, they complained less than they do on a normal rainy day. One guy came all the way from Staten Island, across the Verrazano Bridge. I called him up at 7 a.m. on Monday morning to beg him not to come in, but he was already in Long Island City picking up his partner.”
On Thursday of last week, the NYC Department for the Aging, the city agency that grants QCH’s home-delivered meals contract, told QCH to start employing its emergency protocols to ensure that its clients are safe and stocked for the next few days of uncertainty. Case managers made calls to see who was without food in their homes.
With no public transportation services on Monday, the regular chefs at QCH were unable to get to work. They normally cook at two QCH senior centers and also prepare fresh meals for the homebound. Stepping in with a solution, Jose Aguirre, the home-delivered meals coordinator, left his home in Queens at 6 a.m. to drive into Brooklyn where he picked up hundreds of frozen meals from a supplier.
Of his experience making deliveries on Monday, Diaz, a senior citizen himself, said, “Driving was scary. Objects were flying. The wind was so strong that I struggled to close the car door. I saw four trees go down. Three of the buildings where my clients lived shut down their elevators. I had to walk up five flights of stairs.”
Diaz and his colleagues earn an hourly wage with benefits. The recession hit the agency hard and government austerity measures have made it impossible for QCH to provide cost of living pay increases, and it is constantly fighting against proposed cuts to the essential services it provides.
This campaign season we have heard a lot of rhetoric around the size and role of government. Some say the government should stay out of people’s lives, that it can’t create jobs. Services like meals for the homebound elderly are largely invisible to many Americans who are lucky enough to be able to stand on line to buy their own food. The brave men and women who put their own lives in danger to serve others are true heroes, but we must also thank New York City’s comprehensive safety net which provides a structure that protects our most vulnerable in good times and bad.
“I think of my mother and my father. If I want someone to do this for them, I should do it for someone else’s parents,” Francisco said.
Meryl Branch-McTiernan, native of Queens, NY, is communications director of Queens Community House, where she has worked for five years.