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Bronx on the Way to Recovery One Month After Sandy

More than three weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit some coastal areas in the Bronx, residents are starting to rebuild homes and slowly recover from the disaster, the New York Daily News reports.

Streets filled with debris and branches are now clean, and two emergency relief centers have opened in Borough Hall and the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx.

According to FEMA, up to 4,000 residents of the borough have applied to post-Sandy aid.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Architects to Restore a Historic Bronx Train Station

Located at the intersection of Westchester and Whitlock Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx, the Westchester Avenue train station is about to be restored by two architects based in Manhattan, the New York Daily News reports. Built in 1908, the abandoned place is now covered with ivy and graffitis.

The architects’ plan is to transform the station in two parts, making it an entrance for the Concrete Plan Park. It could also help launching a waterfront community center in the area.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Newswire1 Comment

Bronx Voters Flocked to the Polls in Spite of Sandy

Superstorm Sandy made its presence known on Nov. 6, as voters in the presidential election throughout New York City scrambled to find alternative  polling sites to replace the ones damaged by the storm.

Sandy caused 60 total changes in voting locations across the five boroughs. Three of those changes took place in the Bronx. The Locust Point polling site moved from the Locust Point Civic Association to the parking lot of the MTA Throgs Neck complex.

Soundview residents voted at the I.S. 174 Eugene T. Maleska School instead of P.S. 69 Journey Prep School, and Riverdale voters went to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which served as a substitute for Draddy Hall at Manhattan College.

Though some people in the affected areas may not have been aware of last minute changes, most voters said they were notified with time to spare.

An MTA parking lot in Throgs Neck served as a makeshift polling site. (VIDUR MALIK/The Bronx Ink)

Riverdale residents relied on the Internet to get updates on site changes. Those without online access were left in the dark.

“On the news they’re telling you to go to a website to check your polling site, but what if you don’t have Internet?” said Irene Bernstein, 63, of Riverdale.

Bernstein expressed concern for the elderly, who she said may not use computers or may have lost Internet access in the storm.

“The elderly are going to be disenfranchised,” Bernstein said.

Several voters from outside the Bronx cast their ballots in the college polling site, making use of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order to let New Yorkers vote anywhere in the state.

In Locust Point, a quiet, picturesque neighborhood in the southeast Bronx, voting seemed to take place without any hitches.

A makeshift white tent was set up off the Throgs Neck Expressway on Monday evening. Voting machines were brought in Tuesday morning.

Despite the quick turnaround, Locust Point residents said they were notified of the change in good time by the Civic Association and the Board of Elections. They received emails, letters, Facebook notifications and information from local newspapers.

In addition to flyers and email notifications, residents found the new polling sites posted on the the Civic Association gate on Locust Point. (YI DU/The Bronx Ink)

“This was not an inconvenience at all,” said Debbie Suarino of Locust Point.

Suarino’s basement was flooded with three feet of water during the storm, but she made sure to vote. She got her polling site updates from the Civic Association and the New York Daily News.

Louis Bevilacqua, who lives across the street from the Civic Association building, was hit with almost six feet of water. He made it to the voting tent, but said he was focusing more on getting through the aftermath of the storm than the election.

“Was it a top priority? If I missed out on it, I would not have cried,” said Bevilacqua.

For Daniel Tyx, a senior at SUNY Maritime, the storm may have actually made his voting experience easier. Tyx, who is originally from Buffalo, would have had to vote absentee or in Buffalo if not for Cuomo’s executive order.

He said he logged into Google to find the new polling place and had to ask for directions to find it, but understood the difficult circumstances.

A last-minute white tent served as the polling site for Locust Point residents. (YI DU/The Bronx Ink)

“With the given situation, it was more of the best they could do,” Tyx said.

Ruth Desplant, 52, of Soundview, learned about the changes in voting locations from flyers posted on storefronts, on gate entrances and slipped under residents’ doors. Desplant was constantly checking the Board of Elections website on Monday until it crashed later that evening.

Along with her neighbors in a 2-block radius on Underhill Avenue, Desplant did not have electricity for a week after the storm hit. She woke up on Monday morning with the lights inside her home turned on.

Desplant waited for her husband and 19-year old son to finish voting after she cast her own ballot at I.S. 174 Eugene T. Maleska School on White Plains Road.  Desplant made sure to inform her son, a first-time voter, about the candidates’ positions in the months leading up to Election Day.

“I explained the ballots to him and that he has to be aware because this will affect him for years to come,” said Desplant. “You can’t complain if you don’t vote.”

Posted in East Bronx, Featured, Northwest Bronx, Politics0 Comments

A Fire Causes Severe Damage to a Landmark Theater

A strong fire at the Paradise Theater in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx caused significant damage to this 83-year-old cultural landmark, the New York Times reported.

The fire started around 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, causing two minor injuries among firefighters. More than 100 had to intervene to control the blaze, the Fire Department said.

The cause of the fire remains unclear. Created in 1929, the Paradise Theater used to be a center of Bronx night life.

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Bronx Residents Help Affected Communities in Queens After Sandy

Residents from the Edgewater Park section of the Bronx have started donating and volunteering to help highly-affected Queens communities recover from Hurricane Sandy, NY1 reports.

Firefighters and volunteers from Edgewater Park operated in the Breezy Point section of Queens, along with other neighborhoods in the Rockaways.

They bought supplies and lent material, including a generator, to residents of these devastated areas. In Breezy Point, a massive fire burnt more than 100 homes during the hurricane.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Why are So Many Highbridge Students Unprepared for College?

Josselin wants to go to college some day and her mother ,Maria Gama , is determined to help her, despite the odds. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Maria Gama wants nothing more than to send her 15-year-old to college. The 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico was never able to complete high school herself, and she wanted something more for her daughter.  So Gama, who works as a housekeeper and a nanny in Manhattan, looked around her Highbridge neighborhood for advice.

She quickly realized help was hard to come by. It turns out that the neighborhood has one of the lowest rates of college graduates in the city. The U.S. Census reported that only 7.5 percent received a diploma from a four-year college, compared to 18 percent of around the Bronx.  About 19 percent of Highbridge’s residents enrolled in college at one time or another and never finished.

Even fewer–5.6 percent in Highbridge–received a community college diploma, a full 36 percentage points behind New York City’s average.

During her freshman year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Josselin was able to find a summer program for promising high school students in Westchester County. She spent weeks there surrounded by college bound kids, which helped open her eyes to the possibilities. “She saw the difference between people who study and people who don’t,” said Gama.

Still the hurdles are only beginning. In Highbridge, only 13 percent of Highbridge students are ready for college when they graduate. Many point to something called the opportunity gap. A new report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University shows in statistical terms how living in a low-income neighborhood can affect high school students’ chances to go to college.

“The poorer you are, the worse your education is,” said Peg Tyre, author who works as a director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation, a non profit dedicated to funding college readiness programs for underprivileged kids. “Education is probably the most powerful lever in reducing economic inequities.” In 2011, an adult with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $1,053 a week in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor. Someone with no college education earned $415 less every week.

Residents in the mostly low-income Highbridge section of the Bronx are now starting to worry about how few of its youth residents go to college —an issue that had remained under-addressed for years.

“Most people don’t even think about college here,” said Chauncy Young, 36, a community education organizer since 2004.

The initiative to finally tackle it came from the United Parents of Highbridge. A member of the parent organization, Young was among those to identify programs to prepare students for college as a key issue for the year, during one of the organizations’ monthly meetings at the Highbridge Library on August 29.

Gabriela Silverio, a community activist, writes down ideas to help prepare students for college in the neighborhood, at a United Parents of Highbridge meeting on Aug. 29. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Community organizers and education advocates talked about college trips and college fairs, discussions about colleges between teachers, principals and students in the neighborhood’s schools. “And explain what it really takes to go to college,” Young said. “What are the financial resources available? What are the steps? Parents just don’t know the options.”

Maria Gama, who wasn’t at the meeting, moved from Morrissania to the neighborhood in February. She said many of her friends there send their children to the closest colleges like the Bronx Community College. “They don’t know about the greater opportunities they might have,” she said. Maria Gama wasn’t aware of college possibilities for her daughter until a friend told Josselin to search admissions’ requirement for a variety of colleges.

“My family was talking about college, and that’s about it,” said Brigitte Bermudez, a 20-year-old resident who grew up in Highbridge. “Children don’t care about college. But teachers should have pushed us, they should have given us the information.”

Brigitte Bermudez, 20, hopes to return to college next year. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Bermudez went to Boricua College in Manhattan for a year, but she dropped out in June. She said she didn’t like it after a while. Her professors in the second semester were not as engaging, and she felt it was high school again. She is now trying to apply to other colleges for next year.

Bermudez’s grandmother, Aida Davis, has taken her to a few United Parents of Highbridge meetings to help her with college searches. Otherwise, Bermudez said, “there’s nobody to go through applications with here.”

Schools and community organizations have so far only taken small steps to raise college awareness in the neighborhood. Last May, two college representatives came to the library to introduce their universities. Leticia Rosario, the principal of P.S/I.S. 218, said on August 29 that her school would hold a college fair in December.

Sarah Gale, a 32-year-old business consultant and member of the United Parents of Highbridge, said the process of choosing a middle school for her son —and worrying about college ahead of time— was “nerve-wracking”. “Unless we do the research to get our youth into the right schools, there’s not much hope for them here,” she said.

Her son now goes to the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a college-preparatory school in Harlem. “He’s 13, and he knows where he wants to go to college,” Gale said. “Most of his friends don’t talk about it at all.”

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

State Pulls Funding from Highbridge’s only Mental Health Clinic for Children

One Monday in October, therapist Shlomit Levy was called to a classroom at I.S. 313, a middle school on Webster Avenue in the Bronx where she has worked for the last four years. A student was causing disruptions, storming out of class.

The clinician from a nearby mental health clinic, Astor at Highbridge, took the student aside for a two-hour therapy session. The student was able to return to class with the help of Levy, but not for long. Half an hour later, she had lost control again.

In her emergency session, Levy discovered the student’s family was not cooperating with her therapy. If Levy had been able to see the child earlier, the crisis might not have happened.

But last year, the state pulled its Clinic Plus funding that required I.S. 313 to have parents fill out mental health assessments for their children. Now that the program is gone, the clinician has no information about which children may need help.

The result is that Levy now in October has only one new student patient, at a time when she usually has at least 10. “I’m missing a lot of information,” she said.

Shlomit Levy, a clinician for Astor at Highbridge in I.S. 313, is seeing far fewer children ever since the clinic lost its state funding. (VALENITNE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

Levy’s referral numbers from schools in no way reflects the area’s need. The only mental health outpatient clinic for children and teenagers in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Astor at Highbridge  serves more than 400 clients ages 2 to 21. Patients are seen in its Shakespeare Avenue clinic and inside six local public schools. Its future is uncertain in a community where 52 percent of the population has already received mental health treatment or counseling. In 2006, mental illness hospitalization rates were significantly higher in Highbridge and Morissania than in the rest of the Bronx and New York City.

Levy said the children she sees are suffering from trauma and anxiety among other issues. Some of them have lost a family member to gang violence, or have been sexually abused. Others have parents who are either arrested, incarcerated, or deported. Levy has had patients who lost all contact with their deported parent. Undocumented, these students can’t leave the country to go visit them.

“All these children have such challenging life environments,” Levy said. The therapist is convinced five clinicians like her are needed in I.S. 313. “And we would all be very busy.

The end of Clinic Plus not only curtailed services for needy children, but also created a greater financial problem for the clinic. It came at a time when Astor at Highbridge is being squeezed by yet another cut in state funding. Since 2010, New York State has gradually reduced its direct support for Astor’s two outpatient clinics in the Bronx by 25 percent per year. The same day Levy was called to P.S. 313, the clinic received word that a third 25 percent reduction would go into effect next year, totaling 75 percent lost revenue in three years.  The cuts mean clinicians are under pressure to increase the number of clients who bring in Medicaid or private insurance money.

Astor at Highbridge opened the satellite clinics in schools in 2007. The clinic now has six clinicians who work in neighboring schools. Astor was keeping these services afloat after Clinic Plus money ended, yet times are difficult.

“A couple of my schools want more clinicians,” said Zory Wentt, program director at the Astor at Highbridge clinic. “Do we need it? Yes. Are we going to get it? No. We don’t have enough funding for that.”

Wentt has worked a Astor at Highbridge since it opened seven years ago. It remains the only mental health clinic in the area. It was difficult at first to convince residents to overcome their fears and seek therapy, she said. A strong stigma attached to mental health needs was a barrier.

“A lot of children need mental health services. Yet they have never received it,”  Wentt said.

A book Levy and other clinicians use to help students in schools. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

At the clinic, therapists see children with conditions ranging from attention deficit-hyperactivity or oppositional defiant disorders to those with bipolar or suicidal symptoms. Violence in the area spills over into their clinic. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders are common illnesses.

“We had a little girl whose father was shot right in front of her,” Wentt said. “We have a lot of death cases, along with children being placed in foster care or suffering from sexual trauma.”

In a neighborhood where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to a study by Queens College, lack of resources can become a triggering factor when it comes to mental illness. The majority of the clinic’s patients are low-income, Hispanic and African-American residents. Eighty-five percent of them are on Medicaid and 5 percent have no insurance. Only 10 percent can afford a private health insurance. Revenue from these insurances is now Astor’s only chance to survive financially.

“Funding is a challenge, we’re constantly out there seeking private funding,” said Sonia Barnes-Moorhead, the executive vice president of the Children’s Foundation of Astor. Astor Services for Children and Families operates 12 sites in the Bronx, including two outpatient clinics. Clinicians have had to provide the same services in a way that could decrease costs.

Astor at Highbridge has been affected by what appears to be a national trend: increasing and larger cuts to mental health state funding.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than $1.8 billion has been cut from mental health state budgets in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011. At the same time, one in 10 American children have serious mental health conditions like depression or stress disorder. New York is the second state where cuts are the largest, after California. It cut $204.9 billion in its mental health budget between 2009 and 2012.

Three years ago, the New York State announced it would reduce its Comprehensive Outpatient Program Services (COPS) funding by 25 percent each year, until no funding is left. The state increased Medicaid rates to keep outpatient clinics afloat, but centers like Astor at Highbridge face direct consequences. The COPS funding represented half of the clinic budget, about $1.5 million.

Services at the clinic have been reorganized, and the workload has become barely manageable for some therapists. In 2009, a clinician had about 20 cases in total. Now, their caseloads vary between 50 and 55 people.

“We’ve had to work harder, we’ve instituted a business-like model in mental health services,” Wentt said.

The mental health clinic started to launch open access sessions four days a week for three hours in order to build their client base.

Things can easily become hectic during open access time. Children cry when their parents meet with the therapist, leaving them in the waiting area. Crises can erupt when children fight. A parent advocate and front desk receptionists are available to care for them, but they can often feel overwhelmed.

“With open access, no one is allowed to have a free moment when people come in,” Wentt said.

Zory Wentt has worked at the Astor at Highbridge clinic since 2005. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

With Astor’s limited staff, new clients are often left waiting. On Oct. 1, Nilza Martinez, a 26-year-old resident of Highbridge took advantage of open access hours. She and her 6-year-old child waited for  more than an hour, only to be given an appointment two weeks away. No Spanish-speaking clinician was available that Monday.

Her son’s pediatrician at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center had referred her to the Astor clinic. Her son, she said, was showing extreme anxiety about sleeping, and being left alone.

Clinicians said their heavy caseloads prevent them from being entirely available during open access services. Every week, they need to have an average of 25 billable hours of direct contact with their clients to keep the clinic alive. Some of them say they have to schedule appointments almost every hour to maintain this requirement.

“There is a lot of pressure since we have a lot of paperwork and accountability on top of the work you do in sessions with the children and families you’re working with,” said Audrey Williamson, a 26-year-old social work intern working as a full clinician at the clinic since September. She works 21 hours a week at Astor at Highbridge, besides her classes at Columbia University School of Social Work. She is required to see her clients for at least 10 billable hours.

“Yet I think the pressure of helping and assisting children and their families is much bigger,” Williamson said. “You have lives in your hands for the most part.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Fighting for Democracy from the Gambia to the Bronx

Saihou Mballow, 47, has been a Bronx resident and a Gambian political refugee for the last 13 years. VALENTINE PASQUESOONE / Bronx Ink

On the morning of  Sept. 6, five Gambians organized a protest outside of the Gambia Mission at United Nations headquarters. They wore black t-shirts, a sign of protest, as they walked from 800 Second Avenue to the corner of 47th Street and First Avenue. The Gambians were protesting against their president, Yahya Jammeh, who on Aug. 23 ordered the execution of nine death row inmates and called for all others to be executed by mid-September.

Among the protestors was a Bronx resident, Saihou Mballow. A political refugee, Mballow, 47, left Gambia for the United States in December 1998 because he felt it was unsafe to stay. In his home country, the smallest in Africa, Mballow was a founding member of the United Democratic Party, the main opposition force to Jammeh’s regime. For more than 13 years now, this human rights and democracy advocate has tried to keep the Gambian opposition alive more than 5,000 miles away from home.

“When I arrived here, the first thing that came to my mind was that I had entered a democratic government,” said Mballow while eating kola nuts, a typical Gambian fruit he finds in African stores in the Bronx. “Here, I wouldn’t get arrested for my opinions.”

Mballow ran for Gambia’s National Assembly elections in January, 1997, three years after a coup d’état led Jammeh to power. He was arrested twice along with supporters, while campaigning in the Jimara District. The opposition candidate filed a petition in the Gambian Supreme Court to contest the ballot, yet judges dismissed the case after eight months of trial. Mballow felt he had no other choice but to leave the country.

MBallow first became involved in politics in 1996, when joining the United Democratic Party at its very beginning. He had been a civil servant since the end of high school in 1984. Leaving Fulla Moribocat ––the village he grew up in–– for the country’s capital, Banjul, Mballow started working at Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital. He then became a deputy supervisor for the government.

Mballow said he was dismissed from his job soon after he lost his trial at the Supreme Court.

“I lost all the services I had done for my country as a civil servant,” he said, “simply because I ran for elections.”

His father, a farmer named Samba Kolda, never believed in politics, only in religion. A majority of Mballow’s family didn’t want him to campaign in Jimara in 1997. When they heard he might leave for the U.S., they welcomed the decision.

“People were advising me to leave, and I accepted it,” Mballow said. “I realized I was fighting the wrong cause. It wasn’t the right time for me to challenge the government.” Family members told him that what he was looking for, democracy, was not going to happen quite soon in the Gambia. They said he couldn’t make any change there.

A Gambian political refugee in the Bronx from Valentine Pasquesoone on Vimeo.

Leaving his wife, Wurrie and his two young children in the Gambia, Mballow fled to New York where he was welcomed by friends from the Jimara District. They were living around Tremont Avenue and Grand Concourse, in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx. Mballow started working as a helper in local stores until he was granted political asylum in 1999. Wurrie, 41 and their two children, Fatoumata, now 18 and Aminata, now 14, were able to come two years later. The two younger, Indeh and Ebrima, were born here.

From friends to friends, the political refugee started meeting with more people from the Gambian community. In 2000, along with other members of the opposition, he started a chapter of the United Democratic Party in New York.

“We would have meetings in my apartment, and Saihou would always be there. He’s always attending,” said Pa Saikou Kujabi, a former secretary of the United Democratic Party’s youth movement who has been living in the U.S. since 1999, arriving three months after Mballow. The two men have known each other since 1997.

“Saihou is one of the most vocal, outspoken people I know in the community,” Kujabi said. “He’s always concerned about others’ issues first.”

Both men feel that when they came to this country, Gambians who were already here seemed unaware of the political situation back in their home country. Theses earlier immigrants left the Gambia in the 80s and 90s, looking for greater economic prospects abroad.

Even today, some of them don’t want to be affiliated with any political discussion.

“I had to be talking, calling, calling people to get information about what was going on back home, to be able to say ‘This is what is happening’ during our meetings,” Mballow said.

“Mobilizing Gambians here and working for the restoration of democracy in Gambia was something I wanted to invest my energy and time in.”

In 2002, Mballow started working as a full-time teacher’s assistant at Hawthorne Country Day School, a school for children with behavioral issues based in upstate Hawthorne, NY. He studied business administration at Monroe College in the Bronx in the evenings and on Saturdays, while coordinating political discussions and activities within the Gambian community.

Mballow is now at the head of two organizations based is a small office on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx: the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development and the Organization for Democracy and Justice in West Africa, a non-profit organization he launched in 2008.

“I wanted to encourage people, make sure they continue their job and don’t sit down here,” Mballow said.

“We need to think of people behind us in Gambia,” he said. “We have to help them.”

Every year, members of the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development organize a commemoration of the student protests of April, 2000, that led to the death of 14 Gambians and left at least 28 injured, according to Amnesty International.

On Monday, Sept. 24, Mballow organized another demonstration outside of the United Nations against the execution of death-row inmates in Gambia. Members of the movement say Mballow is involved in any possible political discussion on the Gambia.

“He’s a leader,”said Wassa Janneh, 52, a former secretary at the United Democratic Party, now living in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. “He has his hands in anything that affects politics back home in Gambia. He keeps me motivated.”

Lamin Sanyang, another member of the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development, met Mballow in 2005, after seeing his number on a flyer that announced a meeting for Gambians in a local grocery store.

“I was impressed by his humanity when we first met,” Sanyang said.

“He’s credible, capable and articulate. He is an architect of political emancipation in Gambia.”

On May 8, 2011, Mballow sent a letter to Alhaji Mustapha L. Carayol, the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission in the Gambia, and asked him to allow Gambians abroad to register to vote.

Since they came here, members of the Gambian diaspora have not been able to vote in their home country’s elections. The Independent Electoral Commission requires them to return to their constituencies in the Gambia to be able to register for vote. Many can’t or are afraid to go back. The estimated 5,000 Gambians in New York —according to the Gambian Society— could not vote in the last general elections in November, 2011 when .Jammeh returned to power.

“I am a dual citizen; I am supposed to vote,” Mballow said.

“Why have we been prevented from voting?”

Mballow has been a U.S. naturalized citizen since July 4, 2011. He says the Gambian constitution has allowed him to maintain his Gambian citizenship here.

An advocate of voters’ registration and education since his very first years as a civil servant in Gambia, Mballow is angry yet convinced things will eventually change in his country. The political refugee feels it is the diaspora’s responsibility to make this happen.

“Gambians living here are more involved, more outspoken than the people inside Gambia,” Mballow said. “You can’t blame them. They are scared to speak, even in the opposition. We are the people they rely on.”

Mballow hopes to go back to Gambia one day, as soon as there is political transition.

“Two of my four children are born here. They need to discover Gambia,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia2 Comments

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