Front-Line Heroes

Front-Line Heroes

May 17, 2016

Welcome to New York Nonprofit Media’s Special Edition Front-Line Heroes journal. On the following pages you will find condensed profiles of the individuals who make up our first class of front-line heroes, along with some original articles from our New York Nonprofit Review writers (starting with my op-ed on this page).

In an industry that’s full of compassionate employees, it was tough to select just 25 heroes! Yet these individuals emerged as some of the most dedicated, empathetic and industrious individuals working in New York’s nonprofit sector. It was NYN Media’s distinct pleasure to speak with them.

Throughout our interviews, several telling themes emerged that could serve as calls to action for the nonprofit community as a whole. Many of our heroes called for greater recognition of and appreciation for the potential of their clients, whether they are elders who still have so much to contribute or young people who have the resilience and talent to excel despite challenging circumstances.

Other heroes called for more patience and respect for the individuals they serve. They asked that we all take the time to listen to clients’ stories and to approach them with an understanding of the myriad institutional challenges they have faced throughout their lives. Lastly, there was a call to treat others the way we would want to be treated and to recognize that any one of us could find ourselves seeking out the services they deliver.

These are “heroic” values. May they inspire us all.

 Aimée Simpierre



Paula L. Gavin

New York City Chief Service Officer

In a career that spans 40 years of leadership and executive management, Paula L. Gavin possesses a unique combination of business, education and nonprofit experience, focused on youth, community and leadership development.

On March 31, 2014, Gavin was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio as the New York City chief service officer. She is responsible for NYC Service, the agency that promotes, engages and supports volunteer service in New York City and connects volunteers and service year members to the city’s greatest needs.

Gavin served as the executive director of New York City’s Fund for Public Advocacy from July 2012 to December 2013. The Fund for Public Advocacy is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Office of the Public Advocate.

Gavin served as president of National Urban Fellows from 2007 to 2012, and was responsible for the overall vision, leadership and management of the organization. From 2004 to 2007, Gavin served as the founding executive director of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, a nonprofit organization that promotes the development and continuing quality of charter schools. From 1990 to 2004, Gavin worked as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, where she directed the city’s largest youth-serving nonprofit agency and the nation’s largest YMCA. Prior to her position with the YMCA, Gavin held multiple executive positions with AT&T. As vice president of network operations, she supervised business planning, finance, and personnel and training for AT&T’s operational unit of 60,000. A graduate of the University of Delaware, Gavin is a board member of the YMCA of Haiti. Gavin is an adjunct professor at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service and previously taught nonprofit management courses at the New School and Columbia University. Gavin is of Venezuelan descent and lives in New York City with her husband, John Gavin.



Nancy Wackstein

Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships,
Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service

Following a long career in the New York City nonprofit sector, Nancy Wackstein became director of community engagement and partnerships at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in February 2016. Wackstein served from 2002 to 2015 as executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, the federation of New York City’s 38 settlement houses and community centers. Previously, she was the executive director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a Manhattan settlement house, for 11 years.

Wackstein served as director of the NYC Mayor’s Office on Homelessness and SRO from l990 to 1991 under Mayor David Dinkins and was senior policy advisor for human services in Dinkins’ office from l986 to l989, when he was Manhattan borough president.

She received a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work. In 2013, Wackstein was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Binghamton University.



Diana Archer

Children and Youth Services Coordinator,
The Osborne Association

Diana Archer provides supportive services for the children of incarcerated parents through recreational activities, and she is in charge of planning two trips a year for 15 to 25 children to upstate New York to reunite participants with their incarcerated mothers. Diana coordinates the youth programs at The Osborne Association, where young people discuss and practice life skills. The program participants explore and process the feelings they encounter as children of incarcerated parents.

NYN: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
DA: When I was younger, I always wanted to work with people. I always just wanted to be helping everybody. I’d look in magazines like the J. C. Penney catalogue and pretend I had $20,000 to buy something for all of my friends and everybody I met. We used to laugh about it, but my friends still remember that I’ve always wanted to help.

NYN: How did you become interested in helping children?
DA: I went to school to teach, and I actually taught third grade and universal pre-K classes. But when I was teaching, I realized that what I was really interested in was the children themselves and the trauma they were facing, and not necessarily teaching a curriculum. I felt like it was almost impossible to teach the curriculum when the kids were going through so much, so I decided I wanted to change my focus and work with social service agencies.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
DA: There was a client who had passed away, a young youth, through gun violence near where he lived. One of the hardest things was helping his mom get money for a suit for him. I had always facilitated prison visits between him and his dad. To go from that to facilitating money to get the suit for his funeral was very hard.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
DA: I wish that people would really recognize this population. There are children with parents who are incarcerated, and the children who have been with us are doing so well because they have this support, but many people don’t think about the children when they think about adults being incarcerated.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
DA: I think that if you are incarcerated and you do have children, you should be close to your family. Our kids live in New York City; it’s a 10-hour drive to get near the Canadian border where many of their parents are. We should have these parents close to their families. I took a little girl who is 8 years old for her very first visit with her mother.



Trequan Bekka

Assistant Director,
Good Shepherd Services

Trequan Bekka has been part of the Good Shepherd Services family since he was a young boy, ascending through the Ladders for Leaders training program and eventually becoming a full-time staff person. He was recognized for his outstanding ability to connect to young people and help them reach their full potential. Trequan was a founding staff member of the Brooklyn Frontiers High School, serving at-risk youth. Currently, he is the assistant director of the Miccio Cornerstone Community Center.

NYN: How did you become interested in this field?
TB: The love came for it, just getting in front of a group of kids and running activities. I was just somebody who had the kids screaming and bugging out and just following behind me. I had a real good connection with them, as far as just leading them. If you’ve got a 14-year-old kid with just a group of kids behind him, then you’ve got your own army, you know? It begins to mean a lot to be in that position. It felt like leadership.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done?
TB: I helped to open up a school (Brooklyn Frontiers High School). That was me moving from just talking to people ... to actually getting something done.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
TB: There’s so many changes I feel need to happen. The biggest thing though, I would say, is perception and the mindset of some of the population that we deal with. I think that has to change. But I think it can change through the programs and through politics as well. I think the population I deal with has been through a lot of adversity that has helped shape their mindset. So, how can you really unshape it without reversing that adversity and getting some kind of assistance? I don’t want to generalize, but the population that is struggling, their expectations have to be lifted, their confidence has to be built, and they have to find an identity that’s not destructive for themselves.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
TB: I think the world knows about the kids that I serve; I think the world just forgets. I think if you look through history, you’ll see how certain things have helped shape people to where they are today. I just wish the world wouldn’t ignore that. My population and mainly the black culture that we serve in Red Hook, ... if you look at the black culture in itself, it’s a very young culture. (As Nas said,) we’re basically like teenagers in this world. We’re very young, and during our short venture since freedom we’ve been through a lot of adversity.



Caroline L. Bersak

Assistant Director of Legal Services,
Legal Wellness Institute at The Family Center

Caroline L. Bersak earned her law degree from the New York University School of Law and received her bachelor’s degree in community health and public policy from Brown University. In her work with The Family Center, she serves New Yorkers affected by serious illness, disability and crisis.

NYN: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
CB: First, I wanted to be a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer. Then I wanted to be an architect. But then it turned out that I really have no artistic talent, so then I went back to wanting to be a lawyer.

NYN: How did you become interested in legal services?
CB: I ended up studying community health and public policy, and that was the first time that it occurred to me that there are jobs aimed at helping the less fortunate and trying to make the world a more equal and just place. When I went to law school, I knew that I wanted to work in public interest law and work with marginalized and vulnerable populations. I also have a deep interest in health and in medicine, and did health care research before I went to law school, so I wanted to do something that brought that knowledge and interest in.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
CB: I tend to work in a lot of different areas of law; I’m often representing the same client in a housing court matter, in a family court matter, and sometimes in a Social Security disability hearing - making sure that I’m effectively representing people on multiple fronts. Emotionally speaking, we often work with people who are at the very end of their lives, and because of the way that we do our work, I really get to know our clients. When we do lose clients, which unfortunately happens with some frequency, that can be very emotionally challenging.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
CB: It is just by chance of fate that our clients are on one end of these services and not in my position. The people I work with face more challenges, more difficulty and stress - personally, financially, medically - than I can ever imagine. And they face that, pretty much without fail, with real dignity, courage and grace.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
CB: We could really work on our social safety net, in terms of financial and medical benefits. What I see over and over is people who are doing OK for most of their lives, and then something dramatic happens and things just fall apart. If you can’t work reliably in this country, you don’t have much of an option. The few social safety programs that we have really aren’t enough to sustain people.



Marie Beuns

Social Worker,
Graham Windham

Marie Beuns has been a social worker at Graham Windham for over 30 years. She genuinely cares for every family she works with and keeps in close contact with most of them. Many families stop by to say hello, and a number of them exchange phone calls with her years later, just to catch up. Marie has also been a great support to her team. She is always willing to assist her colleagues in any way possible. She has a certain understanding that allows her to connect to her families and build strong, supportive relationships with them. “Mrs. Beuns inspired me to be a better social worker in the way she carries herself and works with her families,” said her manager, Amrita Raju.

NYN: How did you become interested in this field?
MB: I think it’s just been me; I came from a large family. I just loved being with my family, and I think it just happened.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
MB: For me the most rewarding things - the things that make me feel rewarded and happy - are when the family is reunited together. I was an adoption worker, so when the children get permanency, they have a permanent family, to me that’s rewarding. Whenever a child gets reunited with the family or relative or the adoptive parents, I feel very happy for them. I feel that I did something good.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
MB: If there were more services for the family - the birth family, the birth parents - if they could have more services in place for them.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
MB: The people who I work with are very nice people. Family oriented, Graham Windham is a very good agency, and that’s why I stayed there for 30 years. I have worked with different families, and some of them are very nice, some of them are very angry; it varies. But I understand the reasons why they are so angry, so I try to be very understanding and not judgmental. And I try to be very helpful to them.



John Castellano

Director and Attorney-in-Charge,
Mercy Advocacy Program,
Mercy Haven, Inc.

Since 1997, John Castellano has served as director and attorneyin- charge of the Mercy Advocacy Program (MAP) at Mercy Haven, an organization that provides housing and support services for people who are homeless, living with mental illness or living in poverty. MAP provides low-income individuals free representation for their civil legal emergencies. To date, MAP has opened more than 2,500 cases under John’s direction. During his time at Mercy Haven, John has also promoted systemic reform through class-action suits that have had a positive impact on the poor across New York state. John is a graduate of Holy Cross College and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. His colleagues say his life’s work is “based on the premise that individuals who are poor should have equal access to justice.”

NYN: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JC: My family was full of lawyers. It was kind of a question about whether I’d want to do law. (I was) teaching religion in a Catholic high school in Baltimore, where I was teaching the Beatitudes. And I said, “You know what? I would be better off - rather than teaching religion - trying to live the Beatitudes better by practicing law for the poor.”

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
JC: I had a veteran who was trying to get disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - service connected. And he was denied. He was harassed by the military police in his unit ... classic bullying, if you will. That was one more trauma he experienced, aside from having a persistent and serious mental illness. So I argued the case and got it reopened. I went to the VA on Seventh Avenue, met the claims representative, sat at his desk, went through the facts, and I felt the guy - upon having the story told - got it. On my wall right now is this guy’s check. Occasionally, one can make a big economic difference in the lives of people who are destitute.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
JC: A right to housing. We’ve come a lot closer with a right to health care. It needs to be appreciated that there’s a huge role for government to support - in our social contract with the poor - their dignity. And affordable housing is an enormous need that Mercy Haven tries its darndest to provide.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
JC: They cope with demands that most folks in the middle class would be crushed by. ... It’s stunning what our folks go through.



Jean Chun

Catholic Charities Community Services,
Catholic Guild for the Blind

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NYN: How did you become interested in this field?
JC: I volunteered at Lighthouse Guild and liked helping people with visual impairments. Also, my father was visually impaired.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
JC: Each student is individually challenging, and you have to continually change your methods to meet their needs.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
JC: More awareness of what “legally blind” means, and more accommodations to assist this population.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
JC: That they can be independent if given the opportunity and training.



Marisa Rodriguez

Urban Pathways

For many of the residents at Urban Pathways’ Hallett’s Cove supportive housing complex in Astoria, Queens, their new apartment isn’t simply a roof over their head; it’s the first step toward rejoining society.

Many of Hallett’s Cove’s clients come directly from local homeless shelters or Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where needs like medication and food were constantly monitored. Staff members aren’t simply providing safety and clean facilities; they are helping to form a nascent sense of community.

“It’s about really reintroducing them to the world,” said Rubernette Chavis, operations director at Hallett’s Cove. “It’s reacclimating them to how much a gallon of milk costs, using a MetroCard, washing clothes and walking to the store. Oftentimes, people will ask if it’s okay to go outside. We’re here to reacclimate them to being in the community.”

Given these needs, Marisa Rodriguez views her job at Hallett’s Cove’s front desk as so much more than monitoring security and answering phones. In many cases, Rodriguez is the glue that holds clients’ support systems together.

“I know all of the clients here and everything that is going on in their lives,” said Rodriguez. “Oftentimes, clients will come and talk to me when they need help or they’re feeling vulnerable, and I give them advice just to make sure that they keep making progress. I know that they came from hard times, and I don’t want to see them fail. I want to see them be the independent (people) that I know they can be.”

Rodriguez says that much of her role is going beyond her baseline duties, such as performing security checks on each floor of the building every hour, or assisting clients with their medication after they get home from treatment programs. The real crux of her role, Rodriguez says, is instilling in clients the sense that they can turn their lives around.

“Most of our clients have been on the streets for a long time, and they’ll feel down and think that nobody cares, nobody hears them, nobody can provide for them,” Rodriguez said. “I try to keep them in that positive mindset that you can do it, you can keep going.”

Despite being the first and last person that clients see each day, serving as the first line of response in case of an emergency and forming unique and lasting bonds, Rodriguez makes much less than the forthcoming New York City $15 minimum wage.

“We work so hard just to live off of our paycheck,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes we do have to live paycheck to paycheck. When I first came here, I was working seven days a week, sometimes three or four double shifts.”

Rodriguez says that lawmakers and advocates should continue to fight for higher wages for workers like her so that she can better support her two children, and so that she can continue to do the job she loves without having to worry about how she will make ends meet.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘I work so hard and this is all that I get,’” Rodriguez said. “And we’ll lose good people because they can’t make this work. But I love this job, and I love working with the clients here.”



Samantha Curtin

Solution Based Casework Coordinator,
Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services

Samantha Curtin works for the children who fall through the cracks, get lost, or are erased. “Women and children are constantly vulnerable to people who are tainted from their own personal demons and have no moral center, and sometimes they just need help through hard times,” Samantha says. “This work brings us together with diverse families, and if we are lucky, we leave them better than they were when they came. I love people and enjoy being able to be helpful to them. Obviously, there are challenges that come with the work as well. Those things only encourage me to keep going, even though they hurt. I am thankful that I am able to get to do the work that I’ve aspired to do my whole life: take care of people, especially children.”

NYN: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SC: I wanted to be a nurse, but when I did an externship, we had to do hours at the hospital. One of the little kids there was very sick, and I got really attached to her. Seeing her sickness every day helped me decide to switch to social work.

NYN: How did you become interested in working with children?
SC: I have a nephew who was in foster care, and we had a really good experience with that foster family. Having that experience helped me decide that social work was for me, just because of the dynamics of how that family treated my family. It wasn’t like a foster care placement; it was like gaining more family.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for clients?
SC: I think it’s been learning how to listen and not have any bias in trying to push my beliefs and values on the parents that I engage with. Just listening to their stories, their past, and then helping them make a future.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
SC: They definitely need more access to services in their own communities. Some parents live in Brooklyn, but the services they really need are in the Bronx.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
SC: That everyone can change. You have to believe that people can change in order to help them change. If we can set aside our biases and really learn to work with people on areas where they need help, I think we’d get a lot more done.



Jadrien Ellison

Supervisor of Arts Program,
The Door - A Center of Alternatives

For Jadrien Ellison, the arts have opened up many doors of self-discovery and transformation. Jadrien’s artistic training began at age 12 at the Rosa L. Parks School of Fine & Performing Arts in Paterson, New Jersey, where he specialized in dramatic arts. Jadrien completed his undergraduate coursework in Africana studies at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He earned his master’s degree in contemporary performance making at Brunel University in London. He currently works with young people ages 12 to 24, empowering them to reach their potential through the support of comprehensive youth development services. “He is a constant burst of energy,” said his coworker Lauren Nye.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
JE: We have a young person here … she’s been an active member of the arts program for about three years now. She had an aspiration: She’s a senior right now, and she just recently applied to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, AMDA, and solicited our support in the application process. I was able to link her in with our college office and get her a college advisor. I then in turn was able to write her a very strong reference letter. And she was accepted. She’s getting a full scholarship. We’re just over the moon right now!

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
JE: In dealing with young people who are in this stage of inquiry - whether it’s through their identity or whether it’s in their abilities - there are a lot of questions on the table, and rightfully so. It would only (help) them for us to be a little bit more compassionate in dealing with them and not having the bar set so high that it’s unattainable. They always say meet people where they are; I disagree a little bit. I can afford to challenge someone to raise their standards a bit, but again not at the point where the bar is now insurmountable; I don’t think that’s productive either.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
JE: We work with high-risk or at-risk populations. Dealing with any of those labels, you can definitely walk in with some preconceptions or with some preconceived challenges about working with these groups. But when you hear someone open their mouth and belt out a song, or when you look at a portrait that someone just concocted in less than a half hour, and know that that was coming from a very raw place, that ... in spite of all of their challenges - this has come from one of their very few places of belief and confidence, you are able to then appreciate what you’re seeing or what you’re looking at that much more.



Phillip Foster

Youth Counselor,
Leake & Watts

Phillip works with groups, develops treatment plans, provides counseling and supervises youth at Leake & Watts’ nonsecure placement facility for adjudicated youth in the Bronx. Colleagues say Phillip’s compassion has made him a person who youth in crisis seek out for help processing their emotions.

NYN: How did you become interested in this field?
PF: As a teenager, I was really into getting in trouble, running the streets, denying my parents - so I could relate to some of the things they go through, as far as the peer pressure, the pressure of the streets. I could relate to them. And I know that going that route is not a good route for them to go. So I talk to them with experience; I talk to them from the heart.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
PF: Every day is a new challenge. When you come in, you’re dealing with 12 kids - and it’s 12 different personalities, 12 different situations. If you can just help that day, tomorrow the challenge will be different. So it’s always a different push; it’s always a different strategy. A lot of the kids who we deal with, they don’t have positive male role models in their lives. So sometimes when you sit and you talk with them, you let them know: “I came from where you came from; I’ve been been through what you’re going through; I came from that. You can make it.” It gives them hope. You let them know: The streets don’t have anything to offer; education is the key. You keep pushing and pushing until they get it. Every day, I’m rewarded with something. If I come in and one of them says, “I got an A on my test,” or “I went to school today,” then I feel like every day is an accomplishment for me.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
PF: You’ve got to take your time with them. Often these kids hold in bottled-up issues. That would be my advice to anybody in this field. Don’t just come to work to do the job; come to work and get to know the residents - get to know them for the people that they are.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
PF: I like the fact that with this program it’s more or less not locking them up but giving them a second chance, and that probably is the biggest change that could ever happen for them. As adolescents and teenagers, when they do something for the first time and you lock them up with no therapeutic answer to their problems, you’re just creating adult criminals. Keeping them here, instead of sending them away and locking them up and giving them hard sentences, is probably the best thing that could have been done for them.



Carmen Gonzalez

Education Director,
The Children’s Aid Society,
Early Childhood Division

Carmen Gonzalez came into the Children’s Aid family in 1994. She joined “Padres Presentes y Futuro” (Parents of the Future and Present) at P.S. 5 Ellen Lurie community school in Inwood as a parent and rose through the ranks to become education director. Carmen holds a master’s degree in education from Lehman College. She is also a certified doula.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
CG: We had this parent with a child. … He came at nine months. He was not crawling and always drooling and his fingers were very long. We saw that something was not right with the child but the parent was in denial. ... It was challenging because the parent didn’t see the need for receiving services. So building that relationship and making the parent see for themselves what is needed for that child (was challenging). I used to do therapy with the child and the parent, and then he saw the need for the child to be at the same level with other children. ... The child is now 4 years old, and he’s autistic. He goes to a center. The parent just called me the other day and said, “Wow, I want to say thank you.”

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
CG: A lot of people don’t know about our programs. If they would know that we are here to serve them, that the earlier they start the better it is for their children and for themselves.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
CG: I think it’s giving them more education, educating our parents about the services, about their rights, and for them to know that they can count on an agency like us, that we’re here for them. I do it for them. I have received so much while being here, but that’s what I would really like, to share and help parents to grow.



Michael Goodhope

Health People,
Kids-Helping-Kids Mentoring Program

Michael Goodhope is the coordinator of Health People’s Kids-Helping-Kids Mentoring Program in the South Bronx. In this unique mentoring program, older teens with missing, deceased or ill parents learn to become mentors for younger children facing the same challenges. It takes steadiness and understanding to help kids in very difficult situations establish high standards for their current behavior and expectations for their future. Under Michael’s direction for 10 years, the children - about one-third of whom are in foster care - have achieved a remarkable level of accomplishment. Above all, Michael shows the children how to work together, enabling them to always have a place of support and encouragement with their peers - no matter what else happens. This record reflects Michael’s total dedication and his knack for establishing structure and norms while knowing how to be flexible and empathetic.

NYN: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up?
MG: I knew I would be helping people by lifting their spirits. I mean, if you had asked me back in the day, I would have said that I wanted to be Michael Jackson.

NYN: How did you get interested in community health issues?
MG: I had family members who had to deal with chronic illness - cancer runs in the family - so I really wanted to get into the field to help. The AIDS epidemic hit really hard, and that’s when I decided to start working on these issues, became a caseworker and began my journey of just helping.

NYN: What do you think is the most challenging thing that you’ve done for a client?
MG: Telling a loved one that his or her loved one has passed on, that’s really difficult. Back when we were at the height of the epidemic and people were dying really frequently, that was something very common for HIV caseworkers, and always very challenging.

NYN: What changes do you think would most help the people that you serve?
MG: More advocacy, more people caring, and more people taking interest in helping children. There’s always so much more that people can do, because the children need it. As Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village.”

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people that you serve?
MG: That they just need a little bit of TLC, and they really are a joy to work with. That everybody needs a pat on the back and their spirits lifted sometimes.



Tashawnee Guarriello

Advocate Counselor,
Brooklyn Democracy Academy

For most of her high school career at Bedford Academy High School, a pilot institution started by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Tashawnee Guarriello didn’t view education as a priority. She went to class only because she was “supposed to.” Now, she works as an advocate counselor at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy and feels her life has come full circle.

“I was inspired by some of my teachers and mentors and want to do for other students what they did for me,” said Tashawnee.

Unlike most high schools in New York City, the Brooklyn Democracy Academy exists as a last resort for teenagers who have failed out of other high schools in the city. From town crier to cop to cheerleader, Tashawnee is whoever her students need her to be. In the morning, she gives some of the 35 students she works with wake-up calls to remind them they’re expected to come to school. During the school day, she walks the halls, badgering students to get to class. And in one-on-one meetings with students, she discusses their long-term and short-term goals and dreams, coming up with individualized game plans for success.

NYN: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up?
TG: Besides being a superstar, I actually wanted to be a teacher. So I guess my dreams came true in a certain way.

NYN: When did you first become interested in teaching?
TG: When I was in high school, I really enjoyed tutoring my classmates. I always felt like I had a good way of delivering the lesson to other kids, even better than some of the teachers. But it wasn’t until my senior year in college when I decided that I needed to be working full-time in education. I knew I wanted to give back to the community, because I had so many mentors who had given so much to me.

NYN: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
TG: I think that the work that I do is challenging across the board. I have to be so many roles in one: a friend, a supporter, a policeman. I have to really make sure that they are making the most of their opportunities here. It’s not a 9 to 5. It’s a 9 to forever.

NYN: What changes do you think would most help your students?
TG: My students’ needs are so deep-rooted; it’s going back so many years. I think of the communities that my students come from: They’re from rival gangs; they face challenging circumstances. We need more of an investment in these communities and more community centers where kids can feel safe to go and just be kids.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about your students?
TG: That they are brilliant. That they are resilient. They have so much to offer, and they just need opportunities to succeed.



Rolando Guzman

Deputy Director for Community Preservation,
St. Nicks Alliance

Rolando Guzman oversees a team of community organizers, housing counselors and resident service coordinators who provide housing counseling to low- and moderate-income families. His team also supports community leaders, works against displacement and predatory equity, and provides social services and case management. Originally from Honduras, Rolando has over 20 years of experience in community organizing, with a focus on human rights, immigrant workers’ rights, housing and environmental justice. He has degrees in law and anthropology, is active in community gardens and other local organizations, and is a board member at his local credit union, the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union. Rolando is a fan of hiking, camping and fly-fishing.

NYN: How did you become interested in community organizing and affordable housing?
RG: I think it goes back to the days when I was living in my original country, Honduras. There was so much social and economic injustice going on, and I learned that true, meaningful change only comes when community members are very active in making decisions that affect their reality.

NYN: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
RG: I always had passion for social interactions. Originally, I wanted to study anthropology to interact with community members.

NYN: What was your first job?
RG: My first meaningful job was providing legal services to street children during my last year of college. I was working with Covenant House, back in Honduras.

NYN: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done for a client?
RG: The most challenging part of my job is when I work with families who are facing imminent displacement and are at immediate risk of being homeless, sometimes within hours. So, figuring out how to deal with that and at the same time initiate the process of empowerment and engaging that person to become an agent of change.

NYN: What do you wish people knew about the people you serve?
RG: First of all, I wish that everyone would recognize simple human dignity. Also, that everyone has strength and large assets of knowledge from their previous experiences. And at the same time, that everyone has the courage to survive, to fight, to move forward in life.

NYN: What change do you think would most help the people you serve?
RG: I think having more protection for low- to moderate-income families in New York City is important, as well as having more legal protections around their housing rights and more access to health services. I also think that the city should invest in processes in which people not only receive services but also become empowered to take an active role in their life and in their community.