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Norwood jeweler keeping the shine, even in hard times

Keeping the shine, Even in hard times from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Allan Freilich who presides over the 70-year old jewelry store in Norwood, makes a case for the power of a family business during hard times

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Multimedia0 Comments

Saving more than one pet a day

A young Latino woman pushing a baby in a stroller and pulling a dog on a leash entered the Animal Care & Control shelter on East Fordham Road and Washington Avenue in the Bronx one Saturday in September. “Hi beautiful, you are so adorable,” cooed Vivian Barna, the 51-year-old volunteer and animal lover who greeted them at the door.

The mother was surprised to see that Barna was talking to her dog that she was about to abandon.

In the next half an hour, the scene at the store front shelter was repeated over and over. The woman with the stroller was followed by a young couple with a pit bull. “Are you sure you can’t keep him?” pleaded Barna, while petting the dog. “Or you don’t want to keep him?” The couple

Posters on the AC&C Bronx shelter. Photo by: Connie Preti

Posters on the AC&C Bronx shelter. Photo by: Connie Preti

shrank back, easing toward the door. “You do know that 95 percent of pit bulls don’t make it out don’t you?” Barna was using her best pitch, referring to the shelter’s practice of euthanasia.

Despite the intrepid volunteer’s best efforts, by 11 a.m., the cages were filled with 13 abandoned cats, two dogs and four dead dogs.

The work is heart wrenching, Barna said, but she would never miss a Saturday at the shelter she’s been working at since January of 2010. She commutes every weekend from Queens to the Bronx, after spending the week working as a real estate agent.

Ever since Animal Care & Control of New York City was founded in 1995, the organization has rescued more than 150,000 cats, dogs, rabbits and even one pig.

The shelter operates as the only open-admission shelter in the city, meaning all animals found or abandoned are taken in. If the shelter becomes too crowded, or if the animals are ill or violent, they may have to be put down. AC&C has shelters in all five boroughs, although those in Queens and the Bronx are drop off centers only.

The shelter located on Fordham Road is the only drop-off center the Bronx and it’s only open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 am to 4 pm.

Barna was drawn to animals beginning as a child, when her family cared for multiple pets. Her volunteer career in animal rescue began in 2005 when she helped save pets stranded after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

During that experience, she assisted Garo Alexanian, who in 1983 founded HelpLine, a phone line dedicated 24-hours a day to animal related calls, that is now connected to AC&C’s work.

The two animal rescuers drove in a van from Queens to New Orleans and back again, sleeping for only three hours a day for six days, and returning with 25 rescued dogs. She kept 15 of them with her until she found a home for each.

Vivian Barna. Photo: Courtesy of Vivian Barna

Vivian Barna. Photo: Courtesy of Vivian Barna

Barna started working with AC&C by managing the HelpLine, trying to convince people not to abandon their pets. But she soon realized that she could do a better job dealing with people face to face. She asked to be sent to the toughest center over six months ago, the one with most abandoned animals, and so she was sent to the Bronx.

Barna remembered how unhinged she was when in her first weeks yet another abandoned dog arrived at the door. “I had the most foul mouth, I was cursing all the time.” Barna said.

Manny Mondaca, the veterinary technician at the center in charge of euthanizing animals, said that sometimes cursing is the only way to express frustration.

Mondaca has been working at the shelter long enough to see its budget slashed from $14 million to $7 million over 14 years. And still, against the odds, the shelter is putting fewer animals to sleep every year.

He believes that the volunteer program that Barna participates in has been essential. Not only because the volunteers are the last resource, but also because the majority of the time they are educating people.

In 2001, the shelter took in 49,638 animals. That number went down by 10,000 six years later, but by 2009 it was up again to 40,529. On the other hand, adoptions have gone up 108 percent from 2001 to 2009 according to AC&C. In 2009 24,145 pets were adopted. Although the shelter is far from being a no-kill operation, it has managed to lower the euthanasia rate by 62 percent in eight years.

One hot afternoon in mid-September with a fan blowing her black hair away from her face, Barna sat at the front of the shelter welcoming people. Her table was covered with brochures on various subjects from how to take care of a kitten to low-cost neutering.

Barna barked at a man walking in the door who looked completely lost. Her voice bounced across the cold room, “Can I help you?”

“And you are telling me that your baby is allergic to this dog? That can’t be,” Barna argued with a couple that came in to drop off their second dog in less than two weeks. “Have you had your baby tested for allergies? Did the doctor say the dog had to go? I don’t get it, it makes no sense.”

Later Barna said that people lie a lot and she’s become an expert on detecting it. With words shooting out of her mouth like a machine gun, she continued, “Manny, do you know if that can be true?” she hollered. “A baby having liver problems because of dog hairs? No, right? Makes no sense.”

Barna said that it takes a lot of strength to do this type of volunteering. Behind the counter, Karina S, 20, who asked to keep her last name private, said she still cries when people drop their pets into her arms and walk away.

Karina described Barna as a safety net, someone who catches people before they reach the counter and tries to show them that they have many other options than simple abandonment. “She’s good at getting owners to keep their animals,” she said. “She gives good solutions.” Karina was grateful for Barna’s persistence. Most of the volunteers, she complained, come to the shelter twice and then give up.

Barna has become such an essential part of the rescuing chain for AC&C that Karina calls her when she thinks only Barna can convince an owner to keep their animal, regardless of whether Barna is on duty in the Bronx or not.

The biggest issue, as Barna sees it, is the lack of commitment to the animals. “People throw out animals like old stuff and want to get new ones,” she complained.

Just then, an aging Chihuahua came through the door barking. The dog’s elderly owner was apparently too sick to keep her dog, so her daughter brought it in for adoption. As the Chihuahua was being taken into he back room to be caged, she asked Barna where she could adopt a dog. “Why not keep your mother’s?” Barna asked.

“Nah, it’s too old and ugly, I want a new dog,” the woman replied as she walked out the door.

Posted in Bronx Life0 Comments

Avoiding banks, immigrants save their own way

Denisse Lina Chavez keeps her cash savings in a Heineken bottle that she hides behind the counter of her store in Mott Haven, a practice she has kept for at least 10 years. This unique  savings method helped Chavez pay for her expansion to a neighboring store and then later to open a Mexican restaurant she ran for a while before selling it. While she could have placed that money in a bank and collected interest, she said she doesn’t trust banks and prefers her system instead.
Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings

Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Chavez is one of thousands in the Bronx shying away from the formal financial system. According to a June 2010 report released by the Office of Consumer Affairs Department of Financial Empowerment, the Bronx, at 28.6 percent, is the borough with the highest percentage of unbanked people. While 13.4 percent of New York City residents are without bank accounts, a staggering 56 percent of the roughly 86,000 residents of the neighborhoods Mott Haven and Melrose are unbanked.

But just because many people are not using formal banks does not mean they lack access to savings and credit services. Mexican immigrants bring their cultural practices to the Bronx in the form of informal savings groups called sociedades.   They consist of a group of people who contribute some amount of money on a regular basis. Then,  each member takes the entire pool of money weekly or monthly.

“The point is that you are forcing yourself to save,” said Adrian Franco, director of financial advocacy non-profit Qualitas of Life. “It’s a way to develop an attitude to saving money.”

Chavez is the organizer of a sociedad. In hers, 11 women each contribute $400 weekly, and the pot of $4,400 is given to a different member over the course of 11 weeks. Although the formal group is only 11 women, members without enough money during any given week may ask family and friends to contribute.

“We don’t get rich,” said Chavez. “We just help each other.”

But her group has a much greater chance of bigger returns than most other savings clubs like it. Franco explained that the $400 weekly contribution is extremely high for sociedades, with people normally giving more like $50 a month or $15 or $25 a week. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were as many as 50 or 60 people indirectly participating in Chavez’s sociedad.

Chavez explained that in her sociedad, no interest is charged and the group functions to create opportunities for people to make bigger purchases that may be necessary like clothing and rent, or to cover an emergency. She said that a member and her husband have bought two houses in Mexico with their shares of the money.

Sociedades are not replacements for banks, however, because they don’t provide people with a formal credit history. Experts and financial advocates said they serve to help people, especially women, collect savings and attain some financial independence by creating a social structure through the sociedad. Belonging to a sociedad carries with it certain cultural practices and assumptions.

“There is a social pressure attached,” said Alicia Portada, a financial literacy coordinator at the Union Settlement Federal Credit Union, a non-profit group that works in all five boroughs. “You don’t want to be the one who didn’t give the money. Everybody will wonder why and you’ll get left out in the future.”

It is difficult to track how many sociedades actually exist because members are often undocumented and there is no paper trail. But it’s easy to understand why they are so popular.

In all of Mott Haven and Melrose, there are only eight banks, as compared to the 44 across the river in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Financial illiteracy also plays a big role in pushing these alternative systems forward, “It might be that they don’t know better.” said Portada. “It takes time to learn the minimum required.”

Lack of English skills also drives people to sociedades, said Adrian Franco, director of Qualitas of Life, another non-profit  group providing financial literacy classes to Hispanics. Immigrants who don’t understand a bank’s policies and complicated procedures prefer these informal savings groups where they can communicate with other members in their native language.

Sociedades and other groups like them have their pitfalls as well. It’s easy for people to run away with the money, which is why these functions work best with friends and family members. “They must be managed well or people can fail to pay and the system collapses,” said Deyanira del Rio, who works at a financial advocacy non-profit organization called the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. “If it works well, it can be a disciplined form of savings.”

Margarita Gutierrez, a former member of Chavez’s sociedad, used her savings to buy her store on 138th Street. Four of the 11 members of Chavez’s group were recommended by Gutierrez. “It’s good because it gives credit to people who don’t have social security numbers or documents,” said Gutierrez.

Advocacy groups working toward increasing financial literacy in immigrant populations see the value in being part of an informal savings group like sociedades, but are careful to also acknowledge their limitations.

“It’s a tool,” said Catherine Barnett, vice president of Project Enterprise, a non-profit that administers small business loans to immigrants. “It’s filling a gap. It’s not the total gap, but it’s a start.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Absence of Love for the hungry

Love Gospel Assembly days after the fire destroyed it. Photo by: Connie Preti

Love Gospel Assembly days after the fire destroyed it. Photo by: Connie Preti

When the Love Gospel Assembly was destroyed by a four-alarm fire over the summer, the Fordham neighborhood not only lost its Grand Concourse church, it lost one of its most important resources for the poor during one of the borough’s most economically strained periods yet.

Love Gospel had served anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meals a month. Its loss is still causing added stress to local food providers, particularly in the holiday season.

“The fire was a debacle for us over the past three months,” said Maureen Sheehan, director of Part of the Solution food pantry and kitchen that operates a mile from where Love Gospel once stood.  Her kitchen staff found that traffic from August to October was up 30 percent this year compared to the same period last year.

“It’s awful, because we’re such a tight space and we really can’t handle overcrowding,” said Sheehan. “We were overcrowded to start with.”

The July 25 fire came at a time when the need for food assistance was increasing in the Bronx. A January report by the Food Research and Action Center found the South Bronx is the neediest congressional district in the country in terms of food and poverty. Three-quarters of the food banks surveyed in the Bronx reported to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger that demand for food continued to climb in recent months.

The POTS food pantry, which is separate from the kitchen, experienced a 36 percent increase from 2009 during the three-month stretch. In August through October last year, there were on average 650 families a month visiting the pantry. During the same time this year, there were 885 families per month.

Sister Mary Alice Hannan, who has been the executive director of POTS since 1996, said they were prepared for the influx in August, a time when the Love Kitchen usually closed its doors, but were not for the months to follow. POTS expects its expanded $6.5 million facility will be ready in February. But until then, the organization needs “more funding for what we do,” Hannan said.

Even on Nov. 29, long after most people had already received their Thanksgiving Day packages, there was a long line for the food pantry that spilled onto the street by 9 a.m.

Five years ago, POTS provided 210,000 meals. In 2009 the number jumped to 330,000. This year, the pantry will provide over 380,000 meals, said Sheehan.

In order to meet the upcoming holiday needs, POTS is asking food banks that served the Love Gospel Assembly to send any surplus food to its facility. Although Hannan said they have cooperated, POTS can always use more.

The most recent statistics from the Department of Agriculture show that food insecurity in the country is at its highest since 1995. A 2008 report found that 14.6 percent of households did not have enough food for all family members at some time during the year.

But the greatest need may be in the 16th Congressional District, which makes up part of the South Bronx. The food resource report, which used data from a Gallup poll that surveyed more than 530,000 people, stated that more than 36 percent of this congressional district reported there were times during the past year when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their family needed – the highest percentage of any congressional district in the country.

“The demand that we’re seeing from families has just been increasing so much,” said Khushbu Srivastava, the director of marketing and communications for the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which is located on 168th Street in the Bronx. The housing and social services group partnered with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger to try and raise awareness about food insecurity in the borough. “I think that the biggest thing that we see is that more and more working families are needing support for food, and I think that’s been a really difficult thing.”

The Coalition found that more than half of the city’s food pantries and kitchens said they could not meet the growing need.

“In what is still the richest city in the history of the world, it is unacceptable that more than half of the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens do not have enough food and money to meet the growing demand,” Joel Berg, executive director of the Coalition, said in a press release. “It is no wonder that one in eight state residents now face food hardship, with most barely hanging on. The only bit of good news is that the massive increase in federal nutrition assistance in New York prevented a full-blown hunger catastrophe.”

According to the Coalition, in 2010 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food Stamp Program will provide more than $3.2 billion of federal funding for food in New York City. The figure is $458 million higher than last year. The latest report from the Human Resources Administration said in 2009, 29 percent of the Bronx was using food stamps.

“We really believe that the government needs to do more in terms of supporting emergency food services,” Srivastava said. “We’re giving out less food than we did last year. Last year at this time, we were giving out 150 bags per week. We’re only giving out 80 bags of food per week now, but the demand’s probably twice as high as the year before.”

POTS Mission Statement. Photo by: Connie Preti

POTS Mission Statement. Photo by: Connie Preti

POTS and WHEDco rely on government assistance, donations and the Food Bank. Srivastava said less has been available to take at the Food Bank, and what is available goes fast.

It doesn’t look as if the Love Kitchen will come to the rescue anytime soon either. Jeffrey Williams, who is in charge of coordinating the soup kitchen and pantry service for Love Gospel Assembly, said there are no definite dates for its reopening.

“We have to dig out and clean inside,” said Williams, who used to depend on meals at the Love Kitchen. His role is now to direct patrons to other local kitchens and pantries. “That’s what we are working on right now.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Food and Beyond, Northwest Bronx, Southern Bronx, Special Reports0 Comments

Teaching Forward

Teaching Forward from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Lorraine Valentin runs a GED math class at Grace Outreach in the South Bronx.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Education, Multimedia0 Comments

Two Bronx women sue a pair of African braiding shops, saying they were scalded during visit

Two Bronx women are suing a pair of African braiding shops, accusing workers of burning them with vats of boiling liquid and ignoring their cries for help. (Daily News)

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Army tanks will roll in Bronx

On Saturday night Army and Notre Dame renew their storied rivalry in one of the nation’s great venues. (New York Post)

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Huge manhunt in NJ and NY as wanted Bronx man Jose Rodriguez escapes from NYPD custody

Cops assigned to the NYPD’s Regional Fugitive Task Force were looking for Rodriguez to question him about several Bronx shootings. (Daily News)

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

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