Tag Archive | "Crotona"

A ministry for a hurting community

Pastor Rebecca Vega (right) and her sister, Jacqueline Quinones (left), start the first service in the House of Healing's new location. (KIRAN ALVI/The Bronx Ink)


The worshippers who crowded into the living room of the two-bedroom apartment on Marmion Avenue in East Tremont had known more than their share of losses and hardships. Their neighborhood has been through some tough times.

On Aug. 24, a stray bullet on East 174th Street killed Yaritza Pacheco, 24. On Aug. 30, three people, ages 5, 2 and 20, were shot on 180th Street.  The next day, Phillip Richards, 35, was gunned down on East 181st Street. On Sept. 17, India Durant, 3, died after being found unconscious in her family’s home on East 180th Street. Kurt Lawrence, 17, was found with a gunshot wound to his chest on Nov. 26 on East 175th Street.

But Pastors Anthony and Rebecca Vega, both 35 and married for 14 years, offer hope and healing in their ministry, which recently moved from their apartment into a location four times the size at 921 East Tremont Ave. On most Sundays, it was a struggle to fit the usual 60 worshippers into their apartment so the new location offers new opportunities for serving the community, they say.

“We’re here to help everyone,” said Rebecca Vega, who has two boys of her own. “There’s especially no place for the youth to go around here. Nothing is free, and we want to give them things to be happy about.”

Those things include preaching to youth members at a Juvenile Detention Center in Westchester once a month and hosting community events geared towards children. On Nov. 12, they hosted a glow-in-the-dark service in Tremont Park, the same location where they handed out book bags and school supplies to anyone who came back in September—all funded with their own money and church donations. The Vegas even let youth members lead services on Fridays.

“What else do they have?” Rebecca Vega said. “It’s hard growing up in an environment where not only do you not have a lot, but then things, people get taken from you too.”

The Vegas know what it is like. In 2005, their seven-year-old daughter, Abigail, died of acute metabolic acidosis, a condition in which the body either produces too much acid or the kidneys do not remove enough from the body. But after a part of their family “broke away,” Anthony Vega said, they were able to help join others.

Rebecca Vega and her sister, Jacqueline Quinones, start the service with Spanish-language religious songs. Neither is shy with volume. And as some congregationalists play tambourines and drums, others loudly sing along, falling into a trance with the rhythmic melodies. The hand-holding, emotion-filled room gears up the church for the equally lively sermon given by Anthony Vega and Quinones’ husband, Melvin.

“It’s like a family here and they really care about us, it’s like they’re our friends,” said Joanna Garay, 15, who joined the church in 2010 after stumbling upon a picnic the ministry had outside the apartment building. “There are so many kids doing the wrong things around this area but kids like it here so they come and can stay out of trouble.”

“The church brought my family together,” said Garay, who did not come from a churchgoing family but has not missed a service since she first attended. “And now it feels like the church and everyone in it are my family.”

Garay’s mother went with her daughter one day and then forced her other daughter, Valerie Lovo, to come. Today, Lovo is also an active member and led a service in the orange-painted living room on Oct. 14.

Joanna Castro, 30, of Staten Island said that the living room in the Bronx changed her life.

She found out about the House of Healing through a friend in 2006 and used to make the hour-long drive on Sundays. The pastors helped her find the confidence to get out of an abusive 13-year relationship in a year ago. On Oct. 2, after packing up the painful memories of Staten Island, she moved into an apartment Rebecca Vega helped her find, just four blocks away from the ministry.

“I held on too long to the pain and the hardships I endured,” Castro said. “The pastors just told me that God has bigger plans for you and they helped me get out of it.”

The neighborhood is home to many residents who have a lost many things, including hope, Anthony Vega said. “Then they end up making the wrong choices, and through God and positivity we want to help them find the strength to get through it.”

Instead of walking through their apartment door every weekend, the ministry’s more than 60 people—almost half of whom are under 12 years old—will now be walking into a building and onto the second floor of a new House of Healing.

“We’ve moved into our new location, but we don’t want the feeling to change,” Anthony Vega said seated in his now-empty living room. “We’re going to put a sign outside that reads ‘Welcome Home.’”

“We’re not healed,” he  said. “So we want to help others heal and maybe we can all heal together. Not all is lost.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, VideoComments (0)

fist of fight back program

Fighting their neighborhood

The Fight Back Program is a 10-year-old jiu jitsu and self-defense program run out of the Mary Mitchell Center in the East Tremont and Crotona neighborhoods. Its senseis have trained hundreds of local kids to use martial arts to resist negative pressures all around them.

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Superheroes from the Bronx

They do it for the love of comic art, to help change lives of the children in their community, and to rejuvenate comic art in the Bronx. Ed Mouzon and his partners are some of the key players in the independent comic art movement, started in the ’90s, that is responsible for reviving the deep-rooted comic art heritage in the Bronx.

The Bronx is his inspiration, Mouzon said. “I only need a pencil to doodle what I visualize in the streets of the Bronx.”

Mouzon’s draftsmanship is rich in details and colors, and his characterizations are filled with nuance. The 47-year-old said he has drawn 9,000 comic characters just by observing the streets. “The Bronx is a fertile soil for me,” he said.”These characters are us.”

In the early ’90s when the indie comic came into its own, a team of local comic artists, including Mouzon and his longtime friend Gary Camp, founded  Creative One Comics, an independent comic publishing group based in the Bronx. “We just sat at a round table, and said there will be no hierarchy among us, thus we shall call it ‘One’,” Mouzon said.

Their mission was to focus on intelligent storytelling and promote positive messages — and to stay “independent”.

They maintained a roving office with no permanent space for a studio. “Our studio is where ever we are,” Mouzon said. “We meet at our own areas. We connect with young artists at open door spaces. We do it at a dining table, or while watching a horror movie, I even do the planning during the train trips.”

Creative One Comics publishes many books about Bronx politics and society: The BlakelyverseAn Industrial Strength taste-testLa Mala NocheLittle Miss Strange, and Pozitron. But the remarkable breakthrough was Bronx Heroes — a three-part mini series and a political statement in the guise of a comic book.

Bronx Heroes was first issued in 2007. “It moved us the most, it brought us an audience,” said Mouzon. “It got us in conventions, but it was only a bridge to what’s next for us.”

The sweeping story-telling enthusiasm has brought Mouzon and his partners a ringside view of the United States and Bronx history. “History was the glue for all our Bronx heroes,” said Mouzon.

Camp, 42, said, “We take history events like the Great Depression, and the 70s when the Bronx was burning, and spin it in a way, on superheroes.”

Mouzon, a Bronxite by birth and upbringing, studied zoology in college in Massachusetts but is a self-taught artist. He attended St. Raymond High School for Boys at a time when budget cuts meant no art classes.

“I started drawing when I was 4,” he said. “I was a good visualizer.”

Comic art became for him an act of redemption and a sacred calling especially after he  had  tumor in his right eye when he was 14 that almost cost him his sight.

Mouzon eventually returned to St. Raymond to teach art.  “I teach visual art, filmmaking, and storytelling, but above all I give the kids the spirit on how to become successful,” he said.

“Mouzon is very attached to his students,” Camp said. “I appreciate him for keeping it to the kids.”

Mouzon said he wants his students to surpass him. One example is a former student he urged to study art at the University of Southern California. “This kid is an intern now at Disney,” Mouzon said.

Mouzon also works with community centers in the Bronx to promote art within the borough.

At the moment, he is working with The Bronx River Art Center and students from the Junior High School at Morrison Avenue on an environmental awareness comic book. “It’s called Bronx Go Green,” said Mouzon, who meets once a week with 15 kids to work on the environmentally themed heroes drawings. “It’s the kids’ initiative and effort,” Mouzon said. “I am only putting it together, playing the role of a publisher.”

Ed Mouzon and Gary Camp showing some comic sketches (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

Mouzon and his partners think of themselves as community activists.

“We are not making money,” said Camp. “We don’t work for DC Comics or Marvel. I appreciate Spiderman, but if we work there, we won’t be able to be as active in the Bronx community.”

“Here we can help the kids, do conventions, write for the kids, and be able to immerse ourselves in the community to personify street characters from the Bronx,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We keep our day jobs to pay the bills, then we do it for the love.”

The group’s future plans includes re-launching the Creative One Comics website, and creating a studio to branch out into visual art, urban street art, video games art, to get a wider appeal and to expand the niche, as they continue publishing.

They also plan to publish a new series called Old City — a series of multicultural heroes who build collective power to fight crime, injustice, racism and social prejudice during the the Great Depression. Taking some of the characters from their old series,  Bronx Heroes, the new series aims to focus on the Bronx’s multicultural mix.

Many of the greatest comic artists of the past century — Stan Lee, Will Eisner, John Collins, Bob Kane — lived in the Bronx.

“It’s a legacy that we have give to the next generation, or it will die,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We just want to make books in a collective effort. That’s our model.”

For now, Mouzon and his partners enjoy their vision of success. They make no secret of their credo. It’s on the cover page of the last issue of Bronx Heroes: they “will not yield to evil.”

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HIV/AIDS clinic opens first Bronx location, Bronx Times

The Iris House South Bronx Outreach Center, an HIV/AIDS clinic and information center, opened its first location in the Bronx, reports the Bronx Times.

The clinic, which opened Monday, will be serving the Crotona community and will help to prevent the spread of HIV as well as those that are already positive.

Iris House already operates two locations in Harlem.

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Mary Mitchell community center fights for independence

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

On most days after school outside the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona, passersby hear the sounds of kids dancing to salsa music, practicing Jiu-Jitsu, or reciting the alphabet with one of the center’s tutors. But on the afternoon of Sept. 24, anyone within a five-block radius of Mapes Avenue and East 178th Street heard instead over one hundred people shouting, “Give it back!” over and over again.

The center was in jeopardy of closing down completely, a victim of the city’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit. Days before the rally, the Department of Education which owns the building, demanded that the center take over the $75,000 a year in maintenance costs or risk shutting the doors. For the non-profit community center that serves cash-strapped families, $75,000 represented nearly one-quarter of its budget, a cost it could not afford.

On Oct. 8, the city came back with a compromise. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott agreed to a plan whereby Mary Mitchell would pay $30,000. In exchange, the center would slash its hours, afterschool programs and community access. Lost would be its full menu of cultural activities, leadership training and opportunities for local organizations to use the space. Teens would no longer benefit from visits to colleges.

Negotiations are still ongoing.  The center’s director hopes instead for complete independence from the city, in order to own the building and return to normal hours and programming, without having to answer to the Department of Education. Hence their rallying cry to “Give it back!”

The city, staff believes, is looking for money in all the wrong places. “If we’re in an economic crisis, it’s because of Wall Street, not the poor kids in the Bronx,” said the center’s fiery, 42-year-old director, Heidi Hynes. “They should really reconsider how to raise resources.”

Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The center, directed and staffed by 10 community members, serves over 400 kids and 1000 adults in an area where, according to the non-profit child advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families make less than $35,000 a year.

The 14-year-old center is also used by 28 community organizations that lack facilities of their own to hold meetings and events.

“It’s like a second home for the kids,” said Asia Edwards, 29, whose 11-year old daughter and 6-year old son have been coming to Mary Mitchell for four years.

Officials at the Department of Education argue that the city is not in the financial place to help the center along.

“There are real costs associated with the maintenance of any DOE building,” said spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “Given the current fiscal reality, we are asking community organizations who have not been paying for these services to begin covering the costs.”

Yet according to Hynes, the center had never wanted that agreement with the department in the first place. It had been paying the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for month-to-month leases on the building from its inception in 1997. In 2000, the center was slated to sign a long-term lease in which the Department of Education would be its anchor tenant. Instead, officials decided to transfer ownership of the building entirely over to the Education Department, in a deal that waived the center’s rent, maintenance and security costs. In exchange, the center provided free after-school and weekend programs for children and teens, GED classes for adults, English classes for immigrants, and community access for dozens of organizations.

One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Now, 10 years and a deep recession later, the department has backed out of that agreement.

Community members have expressed shock that the Department of Education would strip at-risk kids of such essential activities.

“We don’t want our kids out on the streets selling drugs, being persuaded by their peers to do negative things,” said Ethel Sarpon, 57, whose Ghanaian organization holds monthly meetings at the center to educate African children about their culture. Her organization may need to find a new meeting ground, now that the center has cut back its hours.

According to a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national non-profit anti-crime organization, children left unsupervised after school are four times more likely to use drugs than those who are supervised, and violent juvenile crime triples between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m.

The Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center is the only after school option for most of the community, since its programs are free or redeemable through vouchers from the Administration for Children’s Services. It is also filling a vacuum left by schools that have cut their after-school activities in the wake of city budget cuts.

“Kids with parents who work, those are the ones who end up on the street,” said 12-year old Ezekiel Farrell, who has been coming to the center for four years with his 10-year old brother, Samuel. Both of their parents work, so they said their mom would have to quit her job to stay home with them if they couldn’t go to Mary Mitchell after school.

The city warned the center of its impending doom back in July, when education officials started rejecting the center’s permits unless it paid maintenance costs.

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Councilman Joel Rivera secured waivers for the center so its summer programs could go on. Then on Sept. 20, the Department of Education rejected the center’s permits again.

The following night, the city-funded custodian at the building closed the doors on staff members and 100 kids who had come for nighttime activities, including dance, Jiu-Jitsu and leadership classes. After two days of wrangling, the center was reopened, as Hynes worked to negotiate a deal with education officials.

To Hynes, transferring ownership of the building back to the center itself would help to lift the weight off of the city, while allowing the center to continue its important work.

“If they’re worried about costs, they should give us the building back,” she said.

The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Hynes believes it will be easier for the center to raise money for a building it owns, as opposed to paying rent to the city. It’s a way for the people of the neighborhood to have a stake in their own development.

“Community controlled assets are a huge step towards democracy,” she said. “If the kids are not safe and healthy, we fail as a society, as a city.”

Hynes will continue to meet with city officials to work out an agreement that will allow the center to return to its full hours and programming. But if it’s up to her, there will be only one option on the table.

“At this point we don’t want their agreement, since we can’t depend on them,” she said. “We want the building for ourselves.”

At the rally, Jannie Armstrong of the First Glorious Church led the crowd in a prayer to return the center to the community, its rightful owner. Later on she said, “I feel terrible about it, but we need to keep the faith. We gonna get this building back.”

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