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“Doing This by Yourself:” A Teenage Father, Now a Single Dad

By Elif Ince and Mamta Badkar

Travis Antonio Luciano sits at a café table  near the entrance to the Bronx Zoo. He is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, skinny and has a wispy mustache on his otherwise baby face. On his back rests a drawstring knapsack and in his lap sits a two-year-old toddler, TJ, who has a head full of curly brown hair, dark black eyes, a button nose and small pearly teeth that sparkle when he smiles.

“I often get asked if he’s my baby brother,” Luciano says. “And I tell them he’s my son.”

Luciano lives with his mother and younger sister in a cramped two-bedroom apartment and loves to play football with his friends in the small patch of green across from his house in Morrisania. He works five days a week at a café in the Bronx Zoo. He recently got his GED which he wants to turn into a job as an electrical technician.

Yet Luciano also has to take care of his two-year old son, for whom he is the sole custodian. At 19, Luciano is a single dad.

Travis Luciano and his son TJ spend the day at the Bronx Zoo. Luciano became a father at 17. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Travis Luciano and his two-year-old son TJ spend the day at the Bronx Zoo. Luciano became a father at 17. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Two years ago, his ex girlfriend, a 15-year-old high school student at the time, became pregnant. “Travis grew up in a church and a lot of spiritual things took place,” said his mother Elizabeth Porter, “Abortion wasn’t an option for him.”

TJ’s now 17-year-old mother, who moved to Philadelphia, visits him twice a month in New York City, said Porter. Luciano thinks the time apart affects TJ badly.

At the zoo TJ squirms in Luciano’s lap, whimpers and frequently cries for “mommy.”  It is a stubborn cry that Luciano is used to.

“When she’s leaving, he has this face where he knows that she’s not gonna come back for a while, and that hurts a lot,” he said.

“A lot of times, he calls people ‘mom,’ that bothers me a lot,” Luciano said. “I don’t like women getting too close to him, because then he’s calling this girl mom, and this girl disappears and then where did mom go? Another mom has disappeared.”

Luciano and TJ’s mother stayed together for about two months after TJ was born. “I went to school, then I went to work at McDonald’s and I used to get home around 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “It was really hard and stressful.” When Luciano’s hectic schedule exacerbated the problems in their relationship, he said, the couple threw in the towel.

“It kinda hurt cause I wanted my son to have a family,” Luciano said.

Becoming a single dad has changed his life drastically. “Having my son forced me to grow up really fast,” he said. He couldn’t afford to spend the time he needed to finish his high school degree and had to transfer into a GED program. To pay the bills, he took a  $7.25-an-hour job at the Bronx Zoo.

Luciano shakes his head at the thought of his friends complaining about school and their hurry to grow up. “When you get older you have children you have to worry about, you have work you have to worry about, you have bills you have to worry about, and that is nothing compared to high school drama at all,” he said.

“I miss high school,” he said. “I miss being a kid again.”

Teenage pregnancies are not a rarity in the Bronx. The South Bronx has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in New York City, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the borough’s rate is double the national average. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 445,045 live births among mothers aged 15 to 19 years in 2007, citing a birth rate of 42.5 per 1000 teenage girls in 2007 . Yet, most of these pregnancies end with the mother taking care of the child, and the father paying child support.

Among single parents living with their children, only 18 percent are men. Though there are no official numbers on teenage single dads, Luciano knows his situation is rare.

“At the moment I don’t know any single fathers,” he said. “You just hate being the only one sometimes.”

His god brother, he explained, recently had a child, but is still with his girlfriend.

“I feel like I don’t really want to talk to him about certain things, like ‘Oh god, I had to stay up all night,’ and this and that because he doesn’t do the same things,’’ Luciano said. “He works, she watches the babies.”

“When you see stuff like that, you wish it was you, you wish that I was still with my son’s mother,” he said. “but then you know things wouldn’t work out the same.”

Being a single dad means Luciano can no longer go to movies because he knows the $10 he would spend on the ticket might come in handy when TJ needs another box of diapers in the middle of the week. In between work and caring for TJ, he can rarely make time for a game of football with his friends. Going out at night has all but disappeared from his life, he said.

“Sometimes I get home from work and I’m extra tired because there were a million guests at the zoo one day, and I just wanna go to sleep and I get home and he’s still up, and he still wants to play, and he hasn’t seen daddy since this morning and he’s running to me and I can’t.” he said. “I’m sorta used to it by now but there’s just those days when you just need an Excedrin for your headache cause you’re doing this by yourself.”

TJ stands sketching on a wall at his father's house. Luciano hopes to save enough money to move into an apartment of his own. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

TJ sketches on a wall at his father's house. Luciano hopes to save enough money to move into an apartment of his own. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

The job at the zoo helps Luciano pay for part of TJ’s expenses, though it gets nowhere close to making ends meet. Luciano’s mother, Elizabeth Porter, 43, who works as an administrator for a union representing teaching and research assistants at Columbia University, is the backbone of the family, emotionally and financially.  Porter is divorced from Luciano’s father.

Porter explained that she often helps her son out with the baby’s expenses. “Financially I still take home all the bills, buy all the Pampers, wipes and bottles and clothes,” she said. And her support doesn’t stop there.

She had to miss work last week because TJ was rushed to Montefiore Medical Center after a bad asthma attack. She stayed with him overnight.

Porter knows the travails of teenage parenthood . She was in her last term in high school when she got pregnant with her first son. As the first in her family to finish high school, she had dreams for her future. “I wanted to be a gymnast and do all the exciting things out there, and unfortunately I got pregnant,” she said.

“I was going to be a single parent; there was no father figure in the picture,” Porter said adding that her mother was a believer in “if you’re going to have a child, you’re going to do everything yourself.”

“So most of the responsibilities were mine outside of mom babysitting when I went to school. I didn’t go out, didn’t go to parties … didn’t go to the movies.”

Having her own childhood cut short, she works hard to give Luciano the opportunity to still be a child. She babysits TJ, helps out financially so her son, “can go out and do teenage things.”

It is apparent that TJ is close to his grandmother or “mima” as he calls her. While Luciano is at work, Porter gets ready for work and then sits TJ down for his dose of asthma medication. When she puts the face mask on his mouth TJ flails his arms shouting for air. Then she sits and watches cartoons with him while waiting for her sister, TJ’s grand aunt, to arrive and babysit so she can leave for work.

The sister, hard-pressed for a smile, arrives late and with a plastic takeout container in her hand positions herself on the couch to watch television. Luciano’s friend helps Porter carry out four immense bags of laundry. TJ who had been watching cartoons, chases her out the door in his onesie crying for her to stay, until she carries him back into the apartment and the arms of her sister.

“I am now a mom raising a child all over again,” she said. “The freedom I used to have, I no longer have because I have a little one to take care of.”

Besides work and taking care of her two children Luciano and his sister Victoria, and her grandson TJ, Porter is studying for an associates degree in business administration.

“I go to school now to show him — ‘if I can do this at this age you can do more,’ ” she said of Luciano. “He can’t have a GED and that’s where life ends. He does have a job at the Bronx Zoo but that’s the beginning, not the end.”

Porter explained that her oldest son had his first child when he was 19, and that  she forced him to finish school.

Luciano agrees with his mother’s focus on education. He plans to take classes so he can be an electrician like his brother, but his longterm goal is to get an apartment for him and TJ, enroll in an online college and one day become an elementary or middle school teacher.  “I just wanted to be one of those cool teachers that make you wanna come to school,” he said. “I love children, so that was my dream job kinda thing.”

Victoria, Luciano’s 11-year-old sister was surprised when she found out her older brother was going to be a father. “Travis was the smarty,’’ she said. “He loved school, and he claimed he wasn’t gonna have kids. He ended up having TJ.”

Now, Victoria is helping to take care of TJ as well. She feeds him, changes his diapers, reads him stories and puts him to sleep when everyone else is busy. “I’m like his auntie,” she said.

Luciano's 11-year-old sister Victoria often helps take care of TJ. Here she babysits him while Luciano prepares to play football with his friends. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink).

Luciano's 11-year-old sister Victoria often helps take care of TJ. Here she babysits him while Luciano prepares to play football with his friends. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink).

Though she has a strong bond with TJ, Victoria said she doesn’t want to have a child before she is done with school.

“My mom said for me to live my childhood, take it slowly, for me not to rush my childhood because I’ll regret it,” she said. Then, she added gingerly, “I won’t regret it. But I will feel a little bit mad if I had a child at a young age.”

It isn’t so easy for Luciano to admit that he would do things differently. “He’s already here, so I already know him, I already love him, I can’t just say I’d go back,” he said, and added, “I would have made it so I’d have him later… Mostly because I wanted to be ready, and I’m definitely not ready right now.”

Posted in Multimedia, Southern Bronx0 Comments

VIDEO – Bronx Boxer Keeps Chasing Golden Gloves Dream

Photos and Text by Mamta Badkar

Video by Shreeya Sinha

Javier Baez, a 17-year-old boxer from the World Class Boxing Gym in Soundview, walked into the Theater at Madison Square Garden shrouded in darkness for his bout with 19-year-old Luis Cruz. His trainer, Luis Olmo, stood behind him while coach Ron Gibson massaged his shoulders as he waited for the announcer to call his name.

Having won the 2009 Metropolitan Championships in the 132-pound novice division and beaten two worthy opponents at the Golden Gloves this year, Baez had arrived at the tournament finals.

Javier Baez prays in the corner as his rival in the 132-pound division, Luis Cruz warms up in the ring. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Javier Baez prays in the corner as his rival, Luis Cruz, warms up in the ring. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

The annual tournament tests young boxing hopefuls around the city, yet no one at South Bronx Prep knew about Baez’s fight — the high school senior intentionally kept it quiet to avoid inviting trouble. “They might want to fight,” he said. Waleska Roldan, the wife of his trainer, suggested another reason. “He’s very reserved,” she said of Baez. “He comes in, says hello, changes and gets to work.”

Baez is uncommonly mature for a teenager. “I don’t really wanna be like anybody else,” he said, admitting he has no idols. At the gym, it is hard to hear him over the ricocheting speed bag and the buzzer that sounds every three minutes keeping the boxers rotating through their warm-ups. While other kids earn reprimands from Roldan, Baez keeps at the bags, rotating through them. He exhales heavily every time he makes contact, occasionally scrutinizing himself in the mirror to ensure his stance is right, that he’s pivoting and hitting the bags the right way.

“He serves as a mentor for the younger kids here,” Roldan said. One of them, Ivan, gushed about jogging with Baez, being in the dressing room with him and helping him wrap his gloves at his last fight. “I look up to him. I call him my brother,” he said, before turning to Baez. “I call you brother, don’t I?” Baez nodded and returned to his bag.

Watching him closely at the gym was his grandmother, Marguerita Fuentes. She has a heart condition and underwent surgery when Baez’s older brother, Jaime Stewart, won the Golden Gloves. “I like that he’s in here boxing and not out in the street,” she said, sitting in her usual ringside spot wearing a blue Yankees bomber jacket.

Fuentes acts as Baez’s driving force. “I want to win my fight for my grandmother,” he said. “She’s asking me to win. I can’t let her down.”

Baez is part of the “Adopt a Boxer” program at the gym and his membership and training fee is sponsored by Roldan. He used to train at Betances Boxers in The Bronx before it closed down, while Olmo, who put his savings into World Class Boxing Gym, used to work for the New York City Housing Authority teaching young people at the community center how to box until he was let go in February 2009. With a number of Police Athletic League boxing programs shutting down and the fire at Morris Park Boxing Club, the Bronx community was in need of boxing gyms for amateurs.

Olmo opened the gym Aug. 1 with a ring and a few punching bags. There were no mats or mirrors at first, but equipment started to follow after he received donations and grants awarded by Assemblyman Marcos Crispo and State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. The gym has a family feel to it, and Roldan said she felt sick watching Baez fight describing it as her “mother hen syndrome.” She looked over at Fuentes and laughed, asking her to bring in her pills for the actual match. “I’m proud as his sponsor,” Roldan said. “He has so much on his plate at such a young age. He’s doing it very gracefully.”

Roldan said she checked her boxers’ report cards, didn’t let them cuss, made sure they dressed appropriately and was pleased to see them help out in keeping up the gym. “We close at 9 and they’re still sitting here,” she said. “It’s like a safe haven for them. I’d rather them be sitting here than be out on the street getting into trouble.”

She recognized that this is a tough neighborhood and wanted “Javi,” as she calls Baez, to win because it would keep the other young boxers training hard. But she could not attend his match at Madison Square Garden because she had to pick her daughter up from dance practice.

“When I fight, I only think about winning,” Baez said during a training session, without a trace of arrogance. Even at 17 he has a quiet determination about him.

At the Garden, it was hard to tell if Baez was nervous beneath his head gear. His eyes seemed focused on the ring. He climbed in, did a quick round kneeling at the corner and crossing himself, threw a few uppercuts into the air and retired to his corner.

After the opening bell, Baez threw a jab at Cruz and missed. He dodged one punch and then ducked to deliver a blow to the stomach. The fighters remained at arms length for most of the fight, but Cruz seemed to be landing more punches. Baez received penalties for ducking and holding before referee Jihad Abdul Aziz stopped the match.

Javier Baez holds Luis Cruz during the final at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The hold got him a warning in a match that was eventually stopped. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Javier Baez holds Luis Cruz during the final at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The hold got him a warning in a match that was eventually stopped. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

“He kept ducking low and after the warning he ducked again,” Aziz said. “They train hard to get here and the last thing I want to do as a referee is stop a match. I am disappointed he didn’t follow the rules because he has experience.”

The dream was over for this year, but Baez said he planned to continue boxing at the World Class Boxing Gym because he didn’t want to leave his trainers. He wants to box until he is 28, and he is applying to study business at colleges in New York.

“It’s also because of his grandmother,” Roldan said. “It’s hard to go to college and not have your family there.”

Additional filming by Dan Fastenberg

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, Sports0 Comments

A Brooklyn Mother’s Plea in the Bronx

By Mamta Badkar

On Oct. 18, 2008, Christopher Robinson, 18, was beaten to death while being held at Rikers Island.  On Thursday afternoon his mother, Charnel Robinson, stood outside courtroom 210, at the Bronx Supreme Criminal Court and spoke out against the inmates and correctional officers she holds accountable for his death.

Her attorney Sanford Rubenstein said the U.S. Justice Department should investigate what happened at Riker’s Island. A group of correctional officers and inmates  have not been charged with Robinson’s death, but with being linked to a “criminal enterprise” called “the program.” Officers Khalid Nelson, Michael McKie and Denise Albright have been charged with conspiracy.  Nelson and McKie have also been charged with assault, corruption and criminal enterprise.

The indictment says that the officers authorized inmates to take over phone time, sanctioned assaults and even told them how to beat the inmates so as to leave the fewest possible traces of assault.

“The young man, Christopher Robinson, was beaten to death because he would not comply,” Rubenstein said.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Robinson said her son tried speaking to the correctional officers but feared them. “These officers are criminals themselves,” she said.

Christopher Robinson, who had on the court’s instruction found himself a job at Staples after his release, was brought into custody for parole violation. “He got a job under their jurisdiction, he did what he was asked to do,” Rubenstein said. “The system failed him.”

Charnel Robinson discusses death of her son on first day of trial of inmates and corrections officers charged in the incident

Charnel Robinson discusses death of her son on first day of trial of inmates and corrections officers charged in the incident. (Mamta Badkar/ The Bronx Ink)

According to a Daily News Report, Robinson was first brought up on burglary charges in 2007.

Attorneys for the correctional officers have filed a motion that they be tried separately from the inmates.

“He wasn’t at the facility or even working at the time Mr. Robinson died,” said McKie’s attorney, Joey Jackson. “Trying them with the inmates would be unduly prejudicial to our clients.”

Renée C. Hill, Khalid Nelson’s attorney, said: “My client has been adamant that he is not guilty. He’s been a good officer and we are looking forward to our date in court.”

Nelson is currently out on bail but has been suspended from his duties.

For the boy’s mother, however, the wounds are still fresh.  “No justice can be served to replace a child,” she said and left the courthouse asking that she be kept in people’s prayers.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime3 Comments

Proposed Soda Tax Falls Flat With Some Bronxites

Gatorade, one of the most popular drinks at bodegas is likely to be taxed if Governor David Paterson's proposal to generate revenue is passed. (Photo by Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Gatorade, one of the most popular drinks at bodegas is likely to be taxed if Governor David Paterson's proposal to generate revenue is passed. (Photo by Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Orlando Deuras stood on 228th Street and Broadway talking on his phone, taking swigs from a 300-milliliter Mountain Dew bottle that he clutched in his right hand. Deuras doesn’t drink coffee. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes. But he says he goes through two liters of Mountain Dew in two days.

Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to increase the  soda tax has met with some criticism and doesn’t sit well with  Deuras.

“I don’t think taxes on soda will stop people from drinking soda,” Deuras said. “I’ve been drinking soda since it was 50 cents a can, and now it’s a dollar. I think it’s his way of getting money out of the masses.”

Deuras, who says he weighs 234 pounds, countered Paterson’s rationale that the taxes would help fight obesity, adding that it wouldn’t stop him from drinking sugary beverages and that the choice should really be up to the individual.

The embattled Paterson has said he would deal with New York’s “inevitable fiscal reasoning” in part by raising $465 million through taxes on syrups used in sodas. A poll conducted by the Siena Research Institute found that 50 percent of  voters opposed this tax. Paterson had tried a similar move in 2009 when he tried to pass an 18 percent tax on sugary drinks.

Akm Huda, who works at High-Ride News, a convenience store in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, said he believed that 15 percent to 20 percent of his business comes from sales of soda, boxed juice drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks. He said that small businesses like his won’t be able to shoulder the burden because the tax increases will adversely affect consumer spending.

However, some store owners like Gus Guzman, whose business relies only in small part on the sale of drinks, sympathize with the governor. “It hurts everybody’s pockets more, but there’s only so much the city can do,” Guzman said.

Shawn Rivera, who sat at a corner table at the McDonalds on 236th Street and Broadway with his twin sons, says he has no qualms about Pateron’s proposal.

“My personal problem is that this stuff is cheap and easily available, and healthy food isn’t as accessible,” Rivera said.  The 32-year-old, who works as hospital maintenance worker, said he spends $40 a month on sugary drinks for his family of six.

“If it was by choice, I would like to shop at Whole Foods, get healthy food, but that’s not easily accessible,” he said. “It’s not realistic.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Legislators Urge Change in Teacher Disciplinary Practice

New York State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. (right) lets Francisco Garabitos (left) address the press after he interrupts the protest. Garrabitos who spent time in the rubber room said, "I don't like people talking about teachers without listening to the teachers."

New York State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. (right) lets Francisco Garabitos (left) address the press after interrupting a protest. Garrabitos who spent time in the rubber room said, "I don't like people talking about teachers without listening to the teachers." (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

A yellow school bus pulled up outside 501 Courtlandt Ave. at noon today. Instead of students though, it carried New York State Senator Rubén Diaz Sr., Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, members of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization and concerned parents. The group got off the door of a Bronx rubber room.

Created as part of a contractual measure to prevent the arbitrary dismissal of teachers in city schools, these centers serve as temporary reassignment for teachers awaiting disciplinary action. About 100 teachers are believed to show up here five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. They are assigned to rooms in which they do not teach. They get holidays off, including the snow day yesterday, and an hour for lunch, but only a handful stepped outside in the presence of the reporters.

Today, about 25 protesters rallied to cries of “let’s close the rubber rooms,” to draw attention to the strain the reassignment centers place on city funds.

“At a time when we’re looking at severe budget cuts, why is the city continuing a process that is throwing money down the drain when the money is so desperately needed in our classrooms?” Crespo said.

The New York Post recently revealed that teachers in the rubber room had been waiting up to seven years without stepping foot into a functional classroom, though still earning publicly financed salaries. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. objected to the system, which he said wastes city money and leaves teachers hanging in the interim. One teacher who did not wish to be identified said he was sent to a reassignment center for being caught driving under the influence of alcohol.

“If they are guilty they should be expelled, if they are innocent they should be put back in the classroom, but they cannot continue paying 660 teachers for sitting down and doing nothing,” Diaz said. “I’m asking our leader to allow me to submit and pass in the Senate legislation to end this parasite.”

As many as 660 teachers are believed to be in limbo across 12 rubber rooms in the city while they await the arbitration of their cases. For some, like Francisco Garabitos, the wait is too long. He quit in July 2009, a few months after he was arrested on accusations that he had falsely claimed to have planted a bomb at New Millenium Business Academy Middle School. Garrabitos said he spent $10,000 suing the Department of Education.

“The assumption is that if you’re in there, you’re guilty,” Garabitos said. “The teachers deserve due process, too.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Politics, Southern Bronx0 Comments

At Risk of Being Positive

By Mamta Badkar

Awilda Colon sets up OraQuick tests for HIV/AIDS inside the Bronx AIDS Services mobile testing unit at Highbridge Community Church on November 22. Residents of Highbridge, like Joy Felder availed of the free testing services. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Awilda Colon sets up OraQuick tests for HIV/AIDS inside the Bronx AIDS Services van at Highbridge Community Church on November 22. Residents of Highbridge, like Joy Felder availed of the free testing services. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Joy Felder waited patiently inside the plain white van parked next to the Highbridge Community Church in the South Bronx. Health workers hired by Bronx AIDS Services were offering free HIV/AIDS tests inside for anyone who showed up.

Sitting on the couch in an army green jacket, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, the mother of two said she wanted the test to ease her mind. A few months ago, she let down her guard and had unprotected sex. “It’s easy to lose focus when you’re in the moment and tensions are high,” Felder said, waiting patiently for her turn.

Felder heard about the free testing service from a friend, but believes programs like this are critical in the Bronx. Bronx AIDS Services, a non-profit health organization, relies on federal and private funding to provide free testing in areas with the highest HIV/AIDS rates and poverty levels.

Highbridge has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases in in the Bronx, twice the city’s average.  The Bronx Knows, a borough-wide HIV/AIDS testing initiative which partners with over 70 agencies including Bronx AIDS Services, identified 1,506 new cases of HIV/AIDS in the Bronx as of June 2009.  Of the 433 Bronx residents diagnosed with HIV in 2008, 118 have been living with full blown AIDS, according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.

Why so high? “There’s a fair amount of bisexuality and incredible poverty,” said Dr. Donna Futterman, Director of the Adolescent AIDS Program, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. “HIV tracks poverty so it combines to be a heavy hit neighborhood,” she said of Highbridge and Morissania.

Futterman said transmission rates have continued to rise in these neighborhoods, even as they decrease elsewhere. “For every 100 people, three are HIV positive in that community,” she said, but reasoned that increased testing would naturally reveal increased diagnoses.

“We’ve let this epidemic languish,” said Futterman. “There’s great work being done but there’s a lot of competing priorities. And if you look at Highbridge and Morissania, you’ll get a picture of them.”

Funding is a perennial issue. An inventory of HIV cases published by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors and the Kaiser Family Foundation in July, found that funding for HIV prevention has been flat since 2004,  with the exception of a $35 million increase in 2007 for the Centers for Disease Control to expand testing. But this new funding has yet to influence the rate of HIV/AIDS in neighborhoods like Highbridge, which remains alarmingly high, even with the efforts by Bronx AIDS Services to increase awareness since 1986.

A tester with Bronx AIDS services has not seen any funding increase for her work in Highbridge and Morrisania over the last decade.  “Instead of us having five groups a week, we’ll have to cut them down to two or one group a week,” said Awilda Colon, who began this work after her sister died of HIV/AIDS in 1993. “They keep cutting. Since the funding is less, the services are less. It actually affects the services that we provide which is sad.”

Now, three Bronx AIDS Services vans cover the Bronx five days a week and sometimes, on weekends. To cast a wide net and maximize its outreach, Bronx AIDS Services also develops ties with community organizations and health fairs. Testing has increased 35 percent since The Bronx Knows first launched its free testing effort in 2008.

A Turkey and a Test?

Meanwhile, Bronx AIDS Services is doing its best to let Highbridge residents know that AIDS testing is available to them. At the Highbridge Community Church on November 22, Marvin Freeman, peer adviser with Bronx AIDS Services, approached people standing on line along Ogden Avenue for a Thanksgiving food distribution organized by another local social service organization, the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development.

“There’s a wonderful van in the back full of resources just for you. There’s also free HIV/AIDS testing available back there,” said Freeman as he distributed condoms and literature on HIV/AIDS. “It’s confidential so no fingerprint and in about 10 minutes you’ll know exactly where you are with this.”

Freeman, looking fit in a black coat and fedora, recognized himself in some of the people in line.  As an HIV-positive gay man and former drug addict, he found himself saying to those he was reaching out to, “I didn’t always look this way, I was in the same exact situation you were.” This ability to bridge the gap between himself and others, made his work easier.

“I was out here in a bad situation drugs, alcohol and no hope,” said Freeman, who first used Bronx AIDS Services himself five years ago as a resource for free handouts. “I’m HIV positive and I have Hepatitis C, and I found out about this program. They had men’s groups at that time that I joined and I used to go just for the Metrocard and the food. I wasn’t looking for relief.”

When he spots people living in isolated, single-room residences, in a situation that is all too familiar, he goes the extra mile to help them. To Freeman, it’s not the disease that is a death sentence, it is the denial.

Denise Richards of The Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development who helped with the food distribution on November 22, understands the importance of initiatives like The Bronx Knows. In neighborhoods like Highbridge which have twice the HIV/AIDS rate of the Bronx hyperlocal efforts make all the difference. Photo by: Mamta Badkar

Denise Richards of The Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development who helped with the food distribution on November 22, understands the importance of initiatives like The Bronx Knows. In neighborhoods like Highbridge which have twice the HIV/AIDS rate of New York city, hyperlocal efforts make all the difference. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Outreach workers like Freeman are effective because they understand the desperation and through shared experiences, inspire hope. “They don’t view us as outsiders coming in to help them,” said Denise Richards, an executive with the Muslim Women’s Institute. “They kind of see us as equal.  ‘I know Denise she lives three blocks away, she works right here. When she’s speaking to me, she’s speaking to me as my equal.’”

The three free AIDS testing vans operated by Bronx AIDS Services work in teams of five. Two peer educators, a supervisor, a tester and the driver set out about nine on weekdays, in vans to conduct tests and increase awareness. On November 22, they handed out $5 McDonald’s coupons as an incentive to those getting tested.

Each mobile van is required by Bronx AIDS Services to test 56 people a month. One worker said she had sometimes tested a 120 a month. “There have been times when I’ve tested 120 but funding doesn’t allow for more so now I get up to 60 done,” said Colon.

She first administers the Oraquick Advance, an oral swab. If that turns out positive, Colon administers OraSure samples, which are sent to labs. In her 12 years as a tester, Colon said she has only ever had two false positives, both of which occurred because the women were pregnant.

Colon also preps clients, assesses their mental health, informs them about support groups and arranges for medical services through Bronx AIDS Services.

“A lot of times, domestic violence plays a part in not using protection, so it’s just a host of problems that we encounter,” said Colon. “People still think it’s a disease for junkies or gay people and that it can’t happen to them.” But the face of the disease is often is a stay-at-home wife or a senior citizen.

“In my heart I wish people would understand that this is just a sickness like any other sickness, like cancer or diabetes,” said Colon.

Breaking the Religion’s Barriers

Often, religious beliefs conflict with HIV prevention. In an effort to reconcile ideological differences, programs like The Bronx Knows have collaborated with community partners that include religious organizations, Bronx hospitals, major community health clinics and universities.  Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development joined with The Bronx Knows in 2008.

In 1997 Nurah Amat’ullah first launched The Muslim Women’s Institute as a kitchen table organization in response to what she believed were her community’s unmet needs. Hunger relief was its first effort. From there the institute branched out to serving other needs, including health scares like HIV/AIDS.

The Institute took on a formal structure in 2005 with an office in the Highbridge section of the Bronx.

“In an area like Highbridge where we have the highest incidences of new infection for people 18 to 24 years of age we would not be a good neighbor not just as an organization, but even as Muslims, if we did not do something to respond to the crisis that faces this community that we are in,” said Amat’ullah. She believes that Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the Bronx population, but that number is difficult to nail down, because records are not kept by religious affiliation.

“We’re still very much a community that is motivated, instructed and guided by what is said at the front of the room in our houses of worship, what is said at the front of the room at the masjid (mosque),” said Amat’ullah. “Our goal is to get more of the Imams to talk to people about the challenges of HIV/AIDS, the responsibility as people, as good human beings to check and know our status.”

The author of a book based on HIV and AIDS in the Muslim community, Farid Esack argued that Muslims have the responsibility to teach other Muslims about the risks of HIV and AIDS from a religious standpoint.  In “HIV, AIDS and Islam,” published in 2004, Esack said Muslims are of the opinion that HIV/AIDS is caused by haram (behavior that is prohibited), like promiscuity and pre-marital sex, and do not acknowledge other means of transmission such as drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, rape and poverty.

“Definitely within the Muslim religion, you know condoms are not condoned. You have your wife and your husband and you’re supposed to have children. So Muslim men and women definitely feel like that’s a no-no,” said Richards. “It’s a very personal choice that they make within their household, between them and their God.”

Muslims in favor of using protection against sexually transmitted diseases seek to dispel the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs by referring to verses of the Qu’ran and the Prophet’s Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) that discuss Islamic values of compassion.

“I tend to come down on the human-compassion side,” said Amat’ullah. “I don’t act in judgment of people’s lifestyle or practices, but try to find ways to give them some ease, some comfort, some protection, against a disease which at this point is still incurable,” said Amat’ullah.

Peer adviser Marvin Freeman plays the piano inside Highbridge Community Church when he takes a break from outreach. Freeman a gay, HIV positive man believes that music and religion have the power to heal. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Peer adviser Marvin Freeman plays the piano inside Highbridge Community Church when he takes a break from outreach. Freeman a gay, HIV positive man believes that music and religion have the power to heal. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Often confronted by those who look at HIV/AIDS as a punishment for moral transgressions, Amat’ullah views the disease and the stigma associated with it as an equal opportunity crisis. “Not just for Muslims but for other faith communities, people often believe that if you contract this disease, then you’re being punished by God for something you did.”

But this is fast changing. Dr. Futterman in her work has found African church leaders and imams taking up the fight.

For Freeman, his HIV diagnosis nine years ago was the beginning of his life. “It was like a divine interruption, if you would, and now I’m healthier,” he said. It allowed him to “plug into his life” and reach out to the community at The First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem.

“Relationships in Christianity allow you to be effective, to reach the poor, the destitute, the lonely, you know that’s what it’s all about,” said Freeman. “I’m not like the 20th century leper and I let that be known to the religious community.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education2 Comments

Leading Up to the Election

By Mamta Badkar

Last fall, the city council gave Mayor Bloomberg the green light to campaign for a third term as mayor, reversing the two-term limit voters in New York City had favored in two previous referendum.  But if post primary polls are any indication, the voters seem poised to forgive him for ignoring their wishes.

Bloomberg reasoned that his success record over the last eight years would trump voters’ preference for term limits. “The voters have a choice,” said Bloomberg at the Oct. 13 debate against his Democratic rival, William Thompson. “If that’s their issue on Nov. 3,  they can express themselves.”

In a special run-up-to-the-election series, Bronx Ink reporters ask the question: what has Bloomberg done for the Bronx?

At best, our reporters found a mixed record in the nation’s poorest congressional district. Food banks are running out of emergency supplies in the Bronx, at the same time more Green Cart vendors have set-up shop in a bid to promote a healthy lifestyle. Some Bronx residents enjoy the results of the $1.1 billion the mayor pumped into city parks, while others in the shadow of the new Yankee Stadium have lost out, for now.  As for the homeless? Their numbers have increased by 45 percent since the mayor took office.

Our coverage takes a look at some of his contenders, including the only Bronx-based candidate on the ballot — Frances Villar, 26, single mother of two, running on the Socialist ticket with $19,000 in her campaign war chest.

Look for Bronx Ink reporters on election day, asking voters at the precincts what they care about.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

The Bronx questions Bloomberg’s plans for jobs

by Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

Kwasi Akyeampong, member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance tying prayers cards to a fence outside the Armory. Related Companies says their proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Kwasi Akyeampong, a member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, ties prayer cards to a fence outside the armory. Related Companies says its proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

For nearly 80 years, the Stella D’Oro cookie factory in the northwest corner of the Bronx filled the air over the Major Deegan Expressway with the delicious scent of its trademark biscotti, breadsticks and Swiss Fudge cookies baking in the oven.

Then on Oct. 9, the aroma vanished. The Kingsbridge factory closed its doors on that day and its 150 remaining workers were out of a job. The brand had been purchased by Lance, Inc., a North Carolina snack manufacturer. The new owner intends to move the brand, its products and the machinery–but not its Bronx workers–to a non-union factory in Ashland, Ohio.

“Stella D’Oro is like a landmark in the Bronx,” said Mike Filipou, who had worked as a lead mechanic in the factory for 14 years. “You know, it’s like Yankee Stadium.”

On the last day, a group of about 75 former Stella D’Oro employees, community supporters and labor activists marched in a circle outside the empty factory, chanting in unison with pickets raised.

Most of their signs were directed at the bakery’s former owner, North Carolina-based Brynwood Partners, the new owner Lance, Inc. and one of Brynwood’s investors, Goldman Sachs. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not escape their wrath.

“Hey Bloomberg, thanks a lot. Bronx unemployment and poverty soaring. Keep Stella in the Bronx,” read several white signs with bold black letters held aloft in the circle.

“Businesses have to make a profit,” said Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist, who is running against Democratic incumbent Kristen Gillibrand for US Senate in 2010. “But we also have to value the community and value the workers that make this company work.”

A good job has been a hard find for quite some time in the Bronx. With unemployment in the borough reaching 13.3 percent in September, Bronxites are looking to the mayor for answers to unemployment in the coming election. In October, 2003, a year and a half after Bloomberg took office, Bronx unemployment was at 10.7 percent, according to the Comptroller’s office. In January, 2006, as the rest of the city saw an average unemployment of of 4.1 percent, the Bronx was 5.5 percent.

“Despite the national economic downturn, which continues to make for trying times for many New Yorkers, our efforts to place people in jobs are paying off in record numbers,” said Bloomberg. “Eight years ago, the city’s workforce centers were placing New Yorkers in roughly 500 jobs a year. This year, we placed them in more than 6,800 – just in the last three months.”

Bloomberg’s approach to Bronx unemployment and poverty falls under his Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, his comprehensive strategy to bring New York City through the economic downturn as fast as possible. The Mayor’s office said the plan focuses on creating jobs for New Yorkers today, implementing a long-term vision for growing the city’s economy, and building affordable, attractive neighborhoods in every borough.

Specifically in the Bronx, the Mayor’s office said the city has helped place 4,526 people in jobs in the first nine months of 2009. Some 200 of these jobs were filled at the new Home Depot at the Gateway Center on River Avenue in the neighborhood of Morrisania.

But some residents have written the mayor off. “He has no interest in doing anything for the Bronx,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a founding member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance and member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “He has done nothing.”

Part of the plan is the implementation of the multi-agency South Bronx Initiative, which the mayor’s office says will spur $3 billion in public and private investment, create thousands of construction and permanent jobs and develop more than 8,000 units of housing.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Oct. 26 put Bloomberg well ahead of former City Comptroller William Thompson, in all five boroughs. In the Bronx, he leads 50 percent to 33 percent among likely voters.

“It’s been shaping up all along, and now the new numbers say it looks like a Bloomberg blow-out,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

About 500 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Sunday, October 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

About 200 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Oct. 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

At St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church on the corner of University Avenue and Fordham Road, hundreds of Bronxites gathered to voice their opposition after the City Planning Commission voted 8 to 4 to approve Related Companies’ redevelopment plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall that will appeal to shoppers across all the boroughs. The castle-like structure has been sitting vacant on West Kingsbridge Road near Jerome Avenue since 1996.

The city has spent $30 million restoring the armory which is being offered to Related for $5 million. Combined with the tax breaks it’s being afforded, this translates to about $40 million in subsidies for Related. The community’s concerns have centered on this distribution of money, which many community members say is inequitable. Residents like those gathered at Tolentine that evening say they could conceivably find jobs in the Armory, but their salaries will not pay enough for them to shop in its stores.

Protesters focused on the developer’s promises to create 1,200 jobs – jobs, the community advocates said, will be part-time, paying poverty-level wages with no benefits. But not everyone in the community shares the concern. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York recently withdrew its support of the protest and came out in favor of redevelopment.

The common sentiment in the auditorium was that the Democratic mayoral challenger, William Thompson, would be better at creating jobs in the Bronx. Mayor Bloomberg supported Related’s bid to create more low-income jobs, not sustainable work, said Pilgrim-Hunter. “Thompson will deliver for us what Bloomberg refuses to acknowledge,” she said.

Even if Related’s opponents muster votes to block the project, the city council would need a two-thirds majority to override the mayor’s seemingly inevitable veto. Bloomberg says this is an opportunity to bring thousands of jobs to the Bronx at a time when it needs it the most. “The armory has been closed to the public for decades, but now we have an enormous opportunity to revitalize it as a hub of activity and jobs in the West Bronx,” he said.”We don’t want to let that opportunity – or any more time – pass by without progress.”

But some residents think this progress targets a select few. “Bloomberg prides himself on development but at what cost?” asked Kwasi Akyeampong, a  member of Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. “People who benefit are his rich billionaire buddies. [Thompson’s] stand is consistent with ours. We want someone who will represent this community,” he said.

Thompson, who has consistently backed the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance’s demands, took the podium at Tolentine.  “The election is nine days away,” he told the energized crowd. “If we come out and fight for what is right, I will be the mayor of New York. This will not move forward.”

Pilgrim-Hunter doesn’t think that the plan is in the best interest of the Bronx. “His five-borough gentrification has made place for the rich. That isn’t the blueprint for our community. We hope the city council has heard us today,” she said. “Today was proof that the Bronx will not vote for Mayor Bloomberg.”

The Bronx has seen some of Bloomberg’s job creation initiatives come to fruition, but as the crowd marched to the Kingsbridge Armory chanting, “Whose armory? Our armory,” it was clear that the Bronx is still waiting for Bloomberg to show and prove.

Posted in Politics0 Comments

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