Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for social justice to address racial discrimination, health inequity, food insecurity and homelessness became starkly apparent as time went on and the effects of the pandemic became more visible. These experiences were at the forefront of our minds at Services for the UnderServed (S:US) as we are a large non-profit organization based in New York City which supports people who live with disabilities, mental illness and/or homelessness. We also employ dedicated staff who face some of these same challenges or support loved ones with some of these same challenges. S:US’ core mission is to drive scalable solutions to transform the lives of people with disabilities, people in poverty and people facing homelessness which is grounded on embracing the solutions that contribute to righting societal imbalances and ultimately creating opportunities for all. As the new CEO of S:US, Dr. Jorge R. Petit, affirms, “At the heart of what we do is a firm commitment to righting the disparities caused by racial discrimination, bias and health inequity and eradicating these within our practices and programs to help us move towards true social justice.”
In the article “Creating a Social Justice Action Framework for a NYC Social Service Provider,” Dr. Petit cited that the American Public Health Association defines social justice as the “…view that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities – this includes the right to good health.”1 The right to good health includes access to good, wholesome and nourishing food. Dr. Petit further asserts that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation defines health equity as the “…means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”2 As a large non-profit serving New Yorkers in need, the management and staff within our ranks sought to take some positive and actionable steps to help level the playing field in righting some of these societal imbalances.
The landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the intention of seeking to cultivate health equity and social justice, inspired S:US’ Vice President of Day Habilitation Services, Jajaida Gonzalez, along with Vice President of Individualized Supports Johanna Cepin, and Director of Urban Farms Michael Hollis, to launch the community fridge program. The initiative was created in response to an increased need for food assistance among families served by S:US along with staff and people in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic due to health challenges, food insecurity, inflation, and the rising cost of food. The community fridges are located on-site at S:US Developmental Disabilities programs and provide fresh produce and basic pantry items to individuals and families in underserved neighborhoods in New York City. People with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) who attend an S:US Day Habilitation program clean, stock and maintain the community fridges, along with the support of staff, giving them an opportunity to help others while connecting to members of their community. The program currently has fridges at two group homes managed by S:US in Brooklyn and the Bronx and with the intention to expand to additional locations over the coming year.
The community fridge program is also supported by the harvests from S:US Urban Farms which has grown over 8,000 lbs. of fresh fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs with the help of adults with disabilities along with donations from two food pantries, Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled and 9 Million Reasons in New York City. On a weekly basis, our Direct Support Professional (DSP) staff and volunteers from our day hab programs pick up food from the food pantries and S:US Urban Farms’ harvests, bring it back to their program site to unpack it, store it in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry, organize the items and pre-pack it in preparation for their weekly delivery. On the day of delivery, the group of volunteers and staff load the donations into a van, travel to the site, clean and disinfect the community refrigerator along with the shelving next to the refrigerator, and organize all of the items so that the donations can be easily presented and retrieved. As S:US Chief Operating Officer Monica Santos shared, “These fridges will not only benefit surrounding communities but also provides the people in our day programs with a meaningful opportunity to serve at the local level.”
DSP Omar mentioned, “It feels great, if overwhelming a bit, to do this work. During the pandemic, I kept seeing lines for soup kitchens wrap around the block, people are hungry and more (people) are becoming homeless. I got into this work to help people and the people in the community. It is a great feeling. We pack the food into the space so it is organized and that there is enough to go around. I want to teach the people that I support to reach out to other people and to help as well. They are so enthusiastic… each person gets their own job done and when it is completed, they want to help in the next area! The drive to help is so strong. They are so engaged in the activity of volunteering, they want to feel that they belong to something, that they can help other people. There is praise in their work as volunteers, but we also praise them because they are helping people who are less fortunate than they are.”
As S:US President & CEO Dr. Petit has said, “The Community Fridge Program offers people with I/DD meaningful opportunities to support and engage with their local community, which is proven to improve the quality of their life and mental health.” Jason, a person supported and volunteer from an S:US day program in Queens shared, “…I like helping out with the community even if I don’t get any awards for it. I work from my heart with some things like volunteering. It feels good to help other people especially those that are hungry.” Staff at Jason’s day program report that he and his peers can’t wait until Friday, their day to volunteer at the community fridge. After they complete their volunteering they say “Good job!” to each other. Travis, a DSP who supports Jason and his peers, reports, “…people in the community will time their arrival and get in line when we are there re-stocking the pantry so that they will have access to free nutritious food. It is good energy to help people… which I observe in our volunteers. It is always good to do good. It is always good to help because at some point in life, we will all need help.” Ronald, a volunteer from the same day program in Queens, added “I like helping out. I like being useful, going to the food pantry and getting the food… it makes me feel good.”
Malcom is another DSP from an S:US day program in the Bronx that supports our volunteers with this endeavor. He helps Sy and Rafael in their role as weekly volunteers and reports that they absolutely love volunteering and helping out in the community. People will often line up and wait for the food as they re-stock the refrigerator. Malcom expressed, “I’ve seen this done before and I always wanted to do something like this… when the opportunity arose, I was happy to be part of this program. It gives people access to things that they wouldn’t normally have access to and it models helping other people for the participants of the day program. Some people wait while we clean the area and organize the food. Other people will wait until we leave because of their pride, they don’t want to be seen taking food. But the fridge is always empty when we return the next week. It’s in an impoverished area and it feels so good to help people in this community.” Judith, a DSP from an S:US day program in Brooklyn shared, “I like working with the volunteers who attend the day program. They are very hands on and really want to help. I like being there with them. It is a wonderful thing to see and it is a part of my job that I love.”
The community fridge program has made stewards of the participants of S:US day habilitation programs, the volunteers and staff at S:US Urban Farms along with our DSP staff and additional staff within the Developmental Disabilities division. Each week they volunteer wholeheartedly – they pack, unpack and re-pack food items, clean, organize food and non-perishable donations so that neighbors and people in the community can have access to nourishment and needed resources. They embody social justice and promote health equity by caring for each other in their tasks as volunteers for those in need. Each participant, whether person supported or staff member, helps each other take responsibility and models respect and generosity for people who are struggling.
There is a word in Pali called paramita which is a Buddhist term often translated as “perfection.” It is described in Buddhist commentaries as noble, character qualities generally associated with enlightened beings. Energy is one of the paramitas and as the writer, yoga teacher and Buddhist scholar Cyndi Lee describes, “…energy can also be interpreted as whole-hearted enthusiasm.”3 When the staff support and witness the people from S:US day programs volunteer for the community fridges and see all of the hard work that they pour into making the food pantries neat and orderly, each person in this endeavor embodies a whole-hearted enthusiasm in their devotion to help their neighbors and the larger community. The S:US staff that work hard each week to model the qualities that S:US strives to cultivate in this city also embody whole-hearted enthusiasm. We are grateful to everyone at S:US who helped create and maintain our community fridges, plus the food pantries Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled and 9 Million Lives, who contribute resources weekly to share with our neighbors in need.
Our community fridges are just one part of S:US’ mission to provide advocacy and support to those in need and to our mission to right societal imbalances and provide opportunities for all. Our essential workforce, especially our direct support staff, support people with I/DD to lead rich, engaged lives in the community, help people with a wide range of tasks, including activities of daily living, with the overall goal of encouraging them to lead independent lives and to be integrated into and volunteer within their communities. These supports are part of a larger framework of advocacy that S:US provides every day to people in need. We are grateful to all of our staff for their commitment to embody these qualities and to promote our mission. We will continue to advocate for people living with disabilities, hunger and/or homelessness through our endeavors in order to have a positive impact to those in need within our communities.
Lori Lerner, LMSW, RYT-200 hr., is Coordinator of Family and Wellness at Services for the UnderServed (S:US).
- “The Dharma of Engaged Practice” workshop training with Cyndi Lee at The Tibet House in NYC, NY on October 22, 2022.