~ Chris Herlinger, Global Sisters Report
This article was published today on the Global Sisters Report website: https://www.globalsistersreport.org
New York: On the last Tuesday of October, a line of about 60 people, orderly and quiet, wrapped around the block that houses the social service agency Cabrini Immigrant Services of New York City and neighboring St. Teresa’s Church, waiting for the weekly food pantry to open.
At the head of the line stood Sr. Yolanda Flores attentively checking IDs, patiently answering questions and making sure that things ran smoothly. They nearly always do, even with an increased demand for food in the midst of a difficult time in the neighborhood.
Flores, a Nicaraguan-born member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Cabrini Immigrant Services’ family program coordinator, helps organize the Tuesday morning distribution from one of the largest weekly food pantries in this part of Manhattan, anchored in the Chinatown area. Though the food pantry is among its most visible programs, the agency also provides legal services and education, cultural and family programming.
Pre-pandemic, the weekly pantry would provide food for about 200 – 300 people; now, the numbers have roughly doubled.
“The pandemia has been a real challenge,” Flores said during a short break during the morning’s activities which began at about 7:30 a.m. By about 10 a.m. or so, the food packages were nearly cleared out; the demand often outstrips what is available.
That is a source of frustration, Flores said, but it is not surprising. Most of those receiving packages – which on this day included a frozen chicken, milk, tea, rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – are elderly neighborhood residents, nearly all Asian, who themselves may not be working but have younger family members who have lost jobs during the economic downturn. “No work, no jobs,” said Flores.
Cabrini had to adjust and retool during the pandemic. Cabrini’s executive director, Javier Ramirez Baron, said that the staff and the agency’s clients have weathered a challenging moment well. “It’s a huge change, but, it’s worked great,” said Ramirez who estimates that the agency has assisted more that 50,000 people since it was founded in 1999.
He said clients, staff and volunteers have all adapted, switching many programs – legal services, individual counseling, community workshops and even Zumba exercise classes – onto platforms like Zoom and Facebook.
“Sometimes, in a moment of crisis, you have to discover ways to be creative,” said Ramirez, who is originally from Colombia.
With Missionary Sisters working and volunteering at the agency, and with the agency a sponsored congregational ministry, ties to the congregation continue. The focus of that agency’s mission remains assisting immigrants in the New York City metropolitan area, including 800 families who regularly receive food packages.
While efforts to continue support to the immigrant community are ongoing, Ramirez said that the pandemic came at a tumultuous time: In the last four years, immigrants in the United States have faced cultural and political headwinds, with the Trump administration instituting tougher immigration policies that have made life more difficult for those seeking to enter the country legally.
Sr. Flores and other Missionary Sisters who have worked with Cabrini Immigrant Services through the years are mindful and proud of the legacy bestowed on them and their congregation. “The dignity and respect of the other person is so important to us,” Flores said. “So is welcoming. That’s one of the legacies she passed on to us.”
Certainly, a feeling of hope and love were on display during the recent Tuesday morning food distribution. Things bustled, with food packages carefully put out and then distributed outside.
Missionary Sister Antonina Avitabile was there, working in tandem with fellow volunteers Heather Lee and Margarita Tlaseca Vides and food pantry manager Jo Lee.
Here, you hear a number of different languages – English, Mandarin, Spanish, French – and it not too hard to imagine that Mother Cabrini would be proud of the work. “It’s a blessing to see us working together, all different nationalities,” Avitabile said. “Here, we all lend a hand together.”