PASTOR SAYS HE'S FOUND HIS MISSION IN SERVICE TO THE NEEDY
Every Saturday Pastor John Udo-Okon wakes up at 3 a.m. to park his two vans along 162nd Street, around the corner from his church, Word of Life Christian Fellowship International.
The vans reserve a patch of sidewalk for his food giveaway program, which feeds as many as 600 people every Saturday, according to the church.
By 5:30, a line has begun to form at the tables piled with food. On a recent Saturday, Mary Martin was the first person in line. In 13 years of going to food pantries, she says, this is one of the best she has found. "Everything is fresh, people wear gloves, the quality of food is good," she noted.
By 6:30, volunteers begin to arrive to help with that morning's food deliveries. Many are former recipients who have returned in gratitude to help. As the pastor and his wife work with the volunteers, he greets the regulars and welcomes newcomers. The line itself is a test of need, he says. "Anyone can line up, but if you stand in line for that long, three hours, you need food."
At 9:30, as it comes close to the time for the line to start moving, high school and college kids start pouring in. They have come to volunteer as well. Pastor John's wife Felicia is quick to organize them. "Why are you here? Come on no standing around. Let's move it," she commands.
By then both sides of the street are packed with people waiting. One side is reserved for the disabled and elderly, the other for everyone else. Grandmas, kids, immigrants and Vietnam vets are among those waiting. Udo-Okon says Iraq war vets have also joined the line from time to time.
At 10 a.m. the line starts to move. Volunteers offer clothing, books, cream cheese, chicken, apple juice, and whole crates of grapes.
"Food stamps aren't enough," explained Lydia Llano, as she moved toward the volunteers distributing food. "You go to the supermarket and come out with nothing. Here you get everything."
A sobbing woman approaches the pastor. He stops what he's doing and pulls her aside. They bow heads. A few minutes later, the woman hugs Udo-Okon and walks away, calm and wiping away old tears.
Later Pastor John explains. The woman's husband had just passed away. Though she was not a member of his church, she lived nearby, and when she needed comfort she turned to him.
"The Reverend is a very nice man and always there for you," says Kate Bryant, a friend who has known the Udo-Okons for years. "Whatever you need, he helps-spiritual, emotional, material."
Udo-Okon, 46, was born and raised in Nigeria. Befriended by Christian students in college, he found a new path in life. But it wasn't until 2003, after he had settled in the U.S., married and become the pastor of a small congregation that met in his apartment in the Northeast Bronx, that he found his true calling.
As he and his wife were driving home from services one Sunday, they noticed a well-dressed man digging through a garbage can. They asked him what he was doing. "He told me he was hungry," recalled Pastor John.
He handed him five dollars, but from that day he knew his work as a pastor had to focus on helping the poor. Later that same year he moved to the South Bronx and the church's current location at 914 Prospect Ave.
About half of the food the church distributes is donated by City Harvest, which gathers uneaten food from restaurants and caterers and delivers it to food pantries. Another 30 percent comes from Food Bank for New York City, based at the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, on whose advisory board the minister serves.
Udo-Okon and his wife also provide emergency food services to anyone knocking on their door during their regular hours of 8 a.m. through 7 p.m. No one is turned away, however, regardless of the time.
The pastor recalls a night when he and his wife were locking up the church. A man ran toward them. He told them that he had no food to feed his family. The nearby bodega where he asked for credit sent him to the church. The couple unlocked the gates. Tears flowed down the grateful man's face, the pastor recalled.
Like many charities, the biggest problem the food pantry faces is funding. The Udo-Okons have invested much of their own money to fund the program. Most of the other support comes from the 50 members of his church.
Newly elected Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has promised a $50,000 grant to purchase a truck, the minister says, and Assemblyman Michael Benjamin has included $6,500 for the food pantry in the grants he makes from a fund set aside for each legislator to disburse at his or her discretion. The church is waiting for that money to come through.
Even simpler requests take time to move through the system. The pastor has asked the city to approve a no-parking zone on 162nd Street, so he will no longer have to reserve the space for food distribution by moving his vans. At its April meeting, Community Board 2 agreed to send letter of recommendation to the city Department of Transportation.
Still, the pastor says he is grateful for any help. "If I just feed that one family in need so they don't have to go to bed hungry, I am happy."
At the end of the day, a few volunteers stay behind to help clean up. One of them, Manny Davilla, who grew up on Prospect Avenue, begins flattening and stacking boxes.
"We needed this place," he says, "with a guy like him here."
The above article won the 2010 Murray Kempton Award for Journalism in the Best Feature Story category. The judges commented: "Small Longwood Church Feeds the Hungry" by Fausto Giovanny Pinto, a senior at Hunter College last year, captures the essence of enterprise reporting with a heartfelt look at the Word of Life Christian Fellowship International Church in the South Bronx. With evident eyewitness reporting, iIt ably portrays the struggle of a pastor and his wife to care for needy area residents, not only with food, but also with understanding and compassion." For more information, click here.
PASTOR SAYS HE'S FOUND HIS MISSION IN SERVICE TO THE NEEDY
John Singletary shifts through a few racks of suits, looking for something that will catch his eye. Already dressed sharply in a beige suit, white collared shirt and red tie, he stops mid-rack when he sees something that is to his liking. Maintaining the swag and smoothness of a jazz player from the Duke Ellington era, he picks up a solid blue designer suit and wails, "Woo this one right here, it's sharp boy."
A few seconds after picking out his suit, the man attending to him suggests a light blue shirt with a matching striped tie. Singletary happily nods his head in agreement. Minutes later he is trying on everything in front of the mirror as his attendee measures his hem. He arrogantly but playfully adjusts his collar and glances a smile right back at himself.
"The mirror don't lie man," said Mr. Singletary, "I'll take it."
What seems like an ordinary occurrence in department stores and tailor shops across the city is in fact happening at an office located 36 floors high in the heart of financial district. Mr. Singletary is in the offices of Career Gear, a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged men find clothes for job interviews, as well as with job retention and advancement skills. Its motto is: "A suit -- a second chance."
The suits are all brand new, donated from companies such as Men's Wearhouse and Brooks Brothers. The organization also boasts a warehouse bigger than the men's department at Macy's Herald Square, with over 15,000 suits. "There is a misconception that Career Gear just gives out clothing," said Michael Obertacz, program director at the organization.
Career Gear works hand-in-hand with job development agencies, which help men who are unemployed, homeless, formerly incarcerated, or former substance abusers; these agencies help with career placement and job placement. Once set up with an interview, they are then given a referral to Career Gear.
Mr. Singletary, 57 from Brooklyn, was referred to Career Gear through Contract Employment Agencies, which works with his parole CEO. "I will never be stagnant again," said Mr. Singletary, when asked how Career Gear has altered his life; he was also referring to a rough patch he hit in his life in the '90s when he got involved in drugs that eventually led to other things and into jail.
When the men are successful on their interviews they are invited back to be part of the Professional Development series. The program is an evening workshop that meets once a week. Here the men learn valuable skills, such as financing and budgeting, how to deal with workplace conflicts, and how to build their resume, among others. For every workshop the men attend they obtain a voucher for another article of clothing, such as a shirt, shoes, or tie. After 6 months in the retention program they get a voucher for a brand new suit. The idea behind it is to build a wardrobe as you build workplace skills.
Another mission of the company is to help the men's families and communities as you help the men themselves. Giving the men a fresh start helps them be better fathers and help their families by paying child support payments, bringing income into the family, and bringing food onto the table. They become more responsible adults and help their community, which in turn makes New York a better place.
William Simms, 68 from Brooklyn, found Career Gear through the V.A. Hospital and left retirement to work at the organization. He often gets letters back from men he has helped telling him thank you for helping them get the job. "I Love it here," said Mr. Simms, "I'll be here as long as possible."
Career Gear was started in 1999 by Gary L. Field. Prior to Career Gear, Mr. Field was a substance abuser, almost homeless, and down on his luck. With nothing but two nickels to rub together, he decided it was time for a change. He sobered up and went back to school, earning his master's in social work. He started Career Gear because he found that when he was down on his luck he couldn't find any support. He is not only the founder but also one of the clients.
Since its beginnings, Career Gear has grown to eight affiliate locations in major cities across the U.S. Last year alone, the New York location suited 2,018 men. "These men have worked their tails off," said Mr. Obertacz. "Some of these men were addicted to crack, living off the street, homeless. Now they have nice, 9-to-5 full-time jobs with benefits. They are also saving money with retirement accounts and supporting their kids. The suits we provide just give these men that extra boost of confidence a man gets when he puts on a suit."
In the days before graduation, as I busied myself with trying to get more than my allotted two tickets for the more than 20 family members who wanted to attend the ceremony and find a nice, affordable restaurant where we could celebrate, I stopped, took a breath and it hit me: College was over.
Hunter was not my first choice for college. I had intended to go to Johnson and Wales University in Providence and become a chef. When the cost of tuition materialized, I realized it was a lost dream that a single mother from the Bronx couldn't afford. Luckily my high school had required all students to apply to CUNY. I was accepted to Hunter, a shock to many kids and, later, myself, "How did you get accepted to that smart school?"
The summer before classes started I was introduced to the school by an orientation program. I met new friends and even and caught up with an old middle school buddy. I felt better; although not my first choice, Hunter was the right choice in the end.
When I entered, I was a film major. During my time at Hunter I have at some point unofficially been a psychology major, history major and sociology major. Officially, I graduated with a double major in media studies and creative writing.
One stand-out moment that summarizes my experience at the college was when one journalism professor who, after embarrassing me in front of the class because I did not do the assignment, called for a 10-minute break. He then led me to the cafeteria and, after buying me a soda, told me, "You know, you remind me of myself. We come from the same place. Where we come from people don't necessarily care and we aren't given the same opportunities as other people so it's easy to mess up." Having come from the New York City public school system, I wasn't used to this level of individual attention. The conversation ended with my professor telling me I had something in my writing and that I was going to face bigger obstacles than an assignment I didn't want to do along the way to success.
That's how it has been at Hunter. Teachers are invested not only in the quality of your work, but also in your well-being. Sure I took some required classes that had hundreds of kids, like Weather and Climate or Film 101, but where else would we meet college sweethearts in labs and lifelong friends from other majors?
I've had esteemed, published, award-winning professors in the media department as well as in the creative writing department. They always pushed and encouraged me to do better while acknowledging the talent I do have. Through my classes I've had experiences that have shaped and molded me: I helped my fellow Bronxites in giving them a voice in the Hunts Point Express, and attended a range of events, from a Golden Gloves boxing match to a rally organized by a family fighting to name a street after their grandfather.
It was through Hunter that I made the numerous connections that continue to this day, even after I graduate. I got my current job through the career development office in my sophomore year. They have been my second family throughout school, encouraging me through each final and paper. Through the CUNY Journalism and Media Job Fair I got my current internship at Education Update and met a great mentor, Dr. Pola Rosen. And these are all aside from the numerous friends I've made from all walks of life.
Although writing papers deep into the night, snapping jokes on the bridge, sleeping on the couches, partying in Thomas Hunter, and surviving off of curly fries are all over, I leave Hunter College equipped with the tools and connections to chase my dreams.