10 Stories of Support in a Year of Obstacles

THE NEEDIEST CASES FUND

Facing challenges wrought by the pandemic, The Fund’s beneficiaries brought help to people and communities.

By Elisha Brown, Sara Aridi, Maria Goncharova and Remy Tumin

Sheeba Shafaq

International Rescue Committee

Sheeba Shafaq grew up in Afghanistan watching her grandmother work as a midwife and her father help patients as a plastic surgeon and emergency medical technician. For her, treating people was the ultimate goal.

But when Ms. Shafaq traveled outside Kabul to teach women about reproductive health, she faced threats and was unable to complete her residency to become a gynecologist and obstetrician.

“The worsening situation and the limiting opportunities for an educated woman who wants to have a normal life left me with no option but to flee my country and move here,” Ms. Shafaq, who now lives in California, said in a recent interview.

When she came to the United States five years ago, she could not afford to enroll in medical programs that would allow her to work directly with patients, so she took administrative jobs in medical offices.

“It was not giving me the happiness and pleasure of waking up in the morning and going to work,” said Ms. Shafaq, 29.

After receiving asylum in April 2019, Ms. Shafaq went to the International Rescue Committee, one of the 10 organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. She applied for a scholarship from the organization intended to help refugees improve skills in their fields.

A few months later, Ms. Shafaq completed a medical assistant program, where she was certified as a phlebotomist and an EKG technician. And in March, she joined a mobile health team in Sacramento. The group is part of Elica Health Centers, which provides health care for underserved populations.

“Sacramento has a huge population of refugees and immigrants, particularly from Afghanistan, who are in need of providers and medical professionals that know their culture, their background and have that cultural sensitivity toward the patients,” she said.

Shortly after she began her new job, the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States, testing Ms. Shafaq and her colleagues.

They gradually adjusted and started coronavirus testing in April. Now Ms. Shafaq is mentoring for the International Rescue Committee in Sacramento, one of its four offices in Northern California, which have been supported by Neediest Cases Fund money. Through its Career Pathways program, Ms. Shafaq helps peers who came to America with medical backgrounds and want to re-enter that line of work. She also was promoted in the fall to be a supervisor at Elica.

“Being able to work with patients for the first time and being able to hear their concerns and listen to what they have to say,” Ms. Shafaq said, “that has been really rewarding for me.”

About the Fund

The 2020-21 Campaign

The 109th annual campaign of The Neediest Cases Fund is supporting 10 nonprofit organizations, whose service to support a global community has been highlighted over the past few months.

Donate now to the 109th annual campaign of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. All proceeds go to 10 organizations providing assistance to those facing economic hardship. Make a tax-deductible donation through GoFundMe.

“2020 has been one of the most challenging and difficult years in recent memory, with many of our neighbors suffering and in crisis,” said Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times Company’s chief executive and chair of The Fund’s board. “Times readers around the world have responded by donating generously to The Neediest Cases Fund. We’re so grateful for the support — a tradition that spans more than 100 years. And we’re committed to using the power of Times journalism to continue to shine a light on communities in need.”

As the campaign comes to a close, we share stories showing the impact of each agency.

The Rivera family

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York

When Adela and Martina Rivera learned last year that their mother, Olga, needed surgery for benign brain tumors, it was the potential aftermath that shattered them. Doctors said Ms. Rivera, now 40, could temporarily lose her ability to walk, talk or recognize her daughters.

But she awoke within hours and immediately called out for them.

“It was like a miracle,” Martina, 20, said during a recent joint video interview.

Her mother’s speedy recovery was a major relief. But that fall, as stresses increased at home, the Rivera sisters, who were both seniors, were thinking of dropping out of high school.

Adela, 18, had been interning with Alianza, a nonprofit organization that supports low-income families in Manhattan and the Bronx. It is a division of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the 10 organizations supported by The Fund.

When Alianza staff learned that the Rivera sisters were going to drop out, they urged them to stay in school.

The sisters hung on and moved from their home into a shelter with their mother in April. They managed to graduate with honors, and Alianza continued to show support. In June, Catholic Charities Community Services, part of Catholic Charities, used $485 from The Fund to buy the sisters gift cards, a table and a speaker as they settled into their new living situation.

Adela and Olga now work as home health aides. Adela had planned to enroll in the fall at a community college in Manhattan to study accounting and was granted financial aid, but she decided to postpone. “Life was like a mess,” she said. The stress of living in the shelter during the pandemic while working a full-time job made it difficult for her to focus on college.

Yet life is taking a turn for the better. In November, Adela, Martina and Olga moved into a transitional housing apartment, where they can stay for a year or two as they plan their next steps. The sisters may wait until next fall to start college, once they feel more financially secure.

Olga’s health remains a gnawing uncertainty; she may need another surgery in 2021. As for Martina, she has struggled with depression, but has hope for the future and ultimately dreams of becoming a high-fashion model.

“I think I’m going to get better,” she said, as she outlined plans to attend college or find a job soon.

Her sister pulled her in for a hug and assured her, “We will support you.”

JOHN Halpern

Community Service Society

John Halpern, a filmmaker and meditation teacher, wandered out one day in April after recovering from what he called a “pretty severe flu” — he was exhausted, debilitated and had no appetite. He can’t be sure it was the coronavirus, he said in a recent interview, but the symptoms added up.

Finally feeling up for an outing, Mr. Halpern, 66, left his apartment in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan to get some necessities when he slipped on ice and fell on his jaw, dislodging a tooth and causing an infection.

“We were in deep Covid, and no one was coming into the office,” Mr. Halpern said. He finally found a dentist in New Jersey who would take his insurance. His credit card was charged $1,500, but he was reassured that his insurance would reimburse him.

Instead, he spent weeks negotiating with his insurance company and was ultimately denied reimbursement. With the film industry shuttered in the spring, Mr. Halpern had no foreseeable income. Bills, including the dental visit and $18,000 in back rent, were starting to pile up.

“I was in a financial wormhole I saw no answers to,” he said.

That’s when Community Services Society, a beneficiary of The Fund, stepped in. The organization provided Mr. Halpern with $1,750 from The Fund to pay for one month’s rent.

“It was such an act of solidarity, and a sensation of being part of a community that was being nurtured,” he said.

The group also helped Mr. Halpern navigate the murky waters of unemployment benefits to retroactively receive about $9,000 to help cover rental arrears going back to March.

In October, Mr. Halpern started receiving unemployment, and clients have slowly started to come back. Mr. Halpern said he is trying to keep everything in perspective.

“What you get from the pandemic is family, community and your values,” he said. “You really have the opportunity to really look at things and look at priorities and what it means.”

Hopi relief

First Book

Though Kiona Arellanes didn’t grow up on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona, the community always felt like home. So when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, she, her brother and other volunteers began to drive several hours from Phoenix to bring truck loads of groceries and cleaning supplies.

“We saw what the virus was doing to Indigenous communities as a whole,” Ms. Arellanes said. “We just knew, being Hopi ourselves, that we saw there were some things that needed to be done.”

The initiative has turned into Hopi Relief, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Ms. Arellanes, 42. Wendi Lewis, the executive director, said going from the reservation to the closest full-service grocery store required traveling dozens of miles. “People were struggling to make those trips,” she said.

The group delivers goods to the reservation every two weeks and reaches out to leaders in each of the 12 villages to assess needs. To prepare for winter, they have been bringing jackets and hats, along with hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

Hopi Relief decided to plan something special for the children after months of challenges for the community. In November, it became the 500,000th member of First Book, a beneficiary agency of The Fund. First Book focuses on education, helping to provide its members in lower-income communities with resources like affordable books. Hopi Relief used a $500 credit supported by The Fund to purchase books and gave them to children in mid-December.

The gifts aligned with the Hopi traditional calendar, which honors calmness and storytelling this month, said Ms. Lewis, 38.

“They have a diverse set of characters and stories,” Ms. Arellanes said, “that hopefully our kids can connect with.”

Ida Feygina

UJA-Federation of New York

When Ida Feygina’s husband of 55 years died in May, she felt lost. A Holocaust survivor, Ms. Feygina, 92, says she considers herself resilient, but the spring challenged even her tenacity.

During the Holocaust, “the psychology of people changed” she said, speaking in Russian. “To eat — that’s the most special word there is. I survived on 125 grams of bread a day. I lived in hunger and fear.”

After World War II, Ms. Feygina said she found a peaceful life with her husband, Mikhail Feygin, and their son in St. Petersburg. They immigrated to the United States in 1994 and settled in the Hudson Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

When Mr. Feygin died of a lung infection, Ms. Feygina’s Social Security Income was reduced by half, to $588 a month. Her son lost his job during the pandemic and could not help her financially. While the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption allows her to pay only $547 of her $1,063 monthly rent, her electricity bills increased by more than $200 because of the oxygen machines her husband used in the month before his death.

She used her family’s combined stimulus checks and borrowed money from friends to cover her husband’s funeral expenses, but she could not pay her electricity and rent. Then in July, her 20-year-old air-conditioner stopped working.

The staff at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A. of Washington Heights & Inwood, a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York, which is supported by The Fund, helped Ms. Feygina get by, she said during an interview from their offices.

The Washington Heights Y used $547 in Neediest Cases Fund money to help Ms. Feygina pay her July rent. And in August, it used $335 to buy her a new air-conditioner. It also helped her get her S.S.I. increased to $783 monthly and is exploring a reduction in her rent in light of her husband’s death.

“Everyone I know has either died or is shut up at home,” Ms. Feygina said. Discussing the Washington Heights Y’s staff, she said, “I don’t know what I would have done without them. They are like my second family.”

Vibrant emotional health

New York Community Trust

After the pandemic hit New York City, one organization considered how the crisis was affecting social service workers, who may have already been regularly confronting intense stress.

Some said they were working harder than ever, or having trouble sleeping, said Lisa Furst, an assistant vice president at the organization, Vibrant Emotional Health, which is based in New York and offers emotional support through community programs and crisis hotlines, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“These are the folks that I think are really keeping New York going in so many ways,” Ms. Furst said. “I don’t think they necessarily come to public awareness in the way that other kinds of responders do.”

One trend Ms. Furst noticed was that many social service workers didn’t know how to take care of themselves and didn’t feel comfortable doing so in the face of so much need.

To address that, Vibrant is creating a project that will offer online courses and live virtual trainings to hundreds, if not thousands, of social service workers in New York City. The project is backed by a $150,000 grant from New York Community Trust, half of which came from the trust’s Emergency Fund, a beneficiary of The Fund.

Vibrant will introduce the material next year. Much of it will help social service workers keep up self-care and teach them to support the needs of clients who have experienced disasters while also addressing their own needs.

Ms. Furst emphasized that self-care greatly benefits workers personally and professionally. “Not only is it OK for you as a frontline worker to take care of yourself, it’s actually imperative that you do it,” she said, “because you’re not going to be able to do the thing that you most want to do if you’re rundown and burned out.”

Greater Chicago Food Depository and Hines Veterans Affairs Food Pantry

Feeding America

For Robert McMahon, volunteering breeds a sense of community, not only with fellow veterans, but also with those who have experienced homelessness.

“There’s nothing more honorable than a veteran giving back to another veteran,” Mr. McMahon said. “It’s in my heart because all of these guys have gone through so much worse than I have gone through, even though I’ve gone through some bad stuff.”

Every Thursday morning, Mr. McMahon, 61, distributes produce and canned goods at the pantry inside the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital in Hines, Ill. The food pantry opened there in 2014 in collaboration with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a beneficiary of Feeding America, one of The Fund’s beneficiaries. And since it began, Mr. McMahon has been pitching in.

Mr. McMahon, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1979 to 1980, found himself homeless a decade ago after his father, with whom he’d been living, died suddenly. “Next thing I know, I didn’t have anybody,” Mr. McMahon said.

He ended up living by the Chicago River in a tent given to him by a ministry organization. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coupled with a hand injury from his military service that worsened over time, stunted his graphing and design career. He operated a forklift for 14 years, but eventually became unable to work. “That really took a toll on my psyche,” he said.

In 2013, the hospital helped Mr. McMahon, who receives less than $800 each month in Supplemental Security Income benefits, secure housing in Berwyn, Ill., where he now lives in a studio apartment.

When the coronavirus pandemic affected Mr. McMahon’s ability to volunteer — he could not help at the pantry from March to October — he felt anxious and depressed.

“Now that I’m older and wiser,” Mr. McMahon said, “I think it’s necessary now for people to know that they’re still wanted and needed and that they do matter.”

Yumedys Gonzalez

Brooklyn Community Services

When Yumedys Gonzalez’s only son died suddenly at 18, her life came to a halt.

“I don’t think people understand when you lose a kid, how your life changes and how everything comes upside down,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 50.

Her son died from complications after surgery in 2014. And continuing absences at her job at an insurance company in Puerto Rico led Ms. Gonzalez to stop working a year later. She experienced depression and financial problems, and eventually separated from her husband.

Hoping for a fresh start, Ms. Gonzalez moved to New York City in 2018.

She settled in Brooklyn with a niece, but her grief followed. After Ms. Gonzalez was hospitalized for a mental health crisis in early 2019, she joined the Personalized Recovery Oriented Services program run by Brooklyn Community Services, which is supported by The Fund.

“They helped me with my coping skills, and with my grieving,” Ms. Gonzalez said. During the program, she learned how to paint and make mandalas, and she also practiced guided meditation and made dream catchers.

Brooklyn Community Services helped Ms. Gonzalez, who receives $207 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assistance each month, apply for supportive housing this year. Just as she was approved in March, New York City went into lockdown.

She faced another roadblock in July when she was supposed to move — she tested positive for the coronavirus and felt isolated as she quarantined.

Last month, Ms. Gonzalez finally moved in. She decorated with her own artwork and is particularly proud of a dream catcher the size of a hula hoop that hangs on her wall.

Ms. Gonzalez makes her crafts on a table bought for her space. The table, along with linens, towels and a sunflower quilt set, were purchased with $218.31 from The Fund.

While art serves as her release, she still grieves for the loss of her son. “I know I’m going to be OK,” she said. “Or at least I tell myself I’m going to be OK.”

the Roman family

Children’s Aid

Karen Roman summed up her pandemic experience with dark humor.

“I want to pull my hair out,” she said, laughing. “It’s challenging.”

Ms. Roman, 35, started studying criminal justice part-time at a community college last year with hopes of becoming a parole officer. She was also working as a referral associate at Urban Health Plan, a network of community health centers, and juggling her duties as a single mother to four children, ages 4 to 15.

After the coronavirus reached New York, Ms. Roman lost her job and could no longer afford her tuition. She dropped out but still owed about $2,300 in outstanding fees.

Soon after, Ms. Roman’s children shifted to remote schooling. She needed to help them with their coursework, she said, while also worrying about how to provide. She tried to keep a brave face, even though she was struggling. If her children caught her crying, she would call it “happy tears.”

Ms. Roman and her family received payments of $235 in public assistance every two weeks, but she said she still felt stuck. In a video interview, her voice grew shaky as she recalled those early days of the crisis. She turned off her camera and took a moment to collect herself.

“I felt like a horrible mother,” she said. “I always want to give my kids whatever they want when they deserve it, and when I don’t have that luxury, it hurts.”

Ms. Roman had previously opened up to a life coach at her children’s school, which is run by Children’s Aid, an organization supported by The Fund. “I don’t like to ask for help,” she said. But when the coach offered to lend a hand, she couldn’t say no.

In June, Children’s Aid used $3,419 from The Fund to pay off Ms. Roman’s outstanding tuition balance and help her with rent payments and her electric bill.

Now, Ms. Roman is focusing on an online cosmetics business she started this year. She also wants to finish her degree, in large part because of her children.

“I want to be able to afford their college, that way they have a head start,” she said. “I didn’t have a head start — this is why I’m struggling.”

She also wants to set an example. “I need to show them that Mami did it,” she added. “I don’t want my children to see me fail.”

Her son King popped into the frame and stood by her side. Though Ms. Roman had just listed one blow after another, she said she was grateful for the help she received and felt it was imperative to be optimistic.

“I’m blessed,” she said. “I’m happy.”

And, she told her son, so were her tears.

Jam’It Bistro

World Central Kitchen

Before opening Jam’It Bistro in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in early 2019, Dawn Skeete had run a family-owned restaurant in Bedford-Stuyvesant for about a decade. (The singer Drake was a fan.)

At Jam’It, Ms. Skeete, 57, fuses Caribbean flavors with other cuisines to appeal to a wide customer base. The first few months were strong. Then sales began to drop, so Ms. Skeete adjusted her offerings.

By the end of last year, she was still getting to know the neighborhood and figuring out ways to cater to it. She felt Jam’It would really take off in 2020.

“And boom — the pandemic hit,” she said, laughing.

The early days of the crisis were difficult, but Ms. Skeete was determined to stay open. If Jam’It did close, she said, she knew it would be for good.

She missed rent payments in March and April. A business loan in May helped her with those expenses and other bills. Then, in June, another business owner in the area asked Ms. Skeete how she could help.

A few days later, Ms. Skeete received a call from World Central Kitchen, one of the 10 organizations supported by The Fund. She was asked to prepare hundreds of meals a week for local community organizations, as part of World Central Kitchen’s Restaurants for the People initiative. The organization paid Ms. Skeete $10 a plate, and over the next four months, she served nearly 14,000 meals.

“What they paid me became my lifeline,” Ms. Skeete said. She was able to hire two more people (her staff had dwindled to two), pay off bills and stay on top of her rent.

Looking ahead, Ms. Skeete refuses to give in to the crisis. She believes businesses can weather it as long as people continue to support each other. Sometimes she orders takeout from other local restaurants, she said, because she knows how it feels to see only one or two customers a day.

If that communal mentality outlasts the pandemic, Ms. Skeete added, “We will make it.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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