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So Much More Than Stayin’ Alive

“As Travolta says, just stayin’ alive”

I overhear this amusingly misattributed quote from one of the regulars who hang out at the public square known as the “hub,” the transportation and shopping nexus at the northern edge of Mott Haven, a neighborhood in the South Bronx. I’m on my way to my MVC placement at Mercy Center, where I work in the Youth Program.

Mott Haven is a challenging neighborhood; what’s known as a high density, low income community. In 2019 it officially tied with the adjacent Hunts Point for the dubious distinction of being the second poorest neighborhood in NYC. It has the highest concentration of NYC Housing Authority projects in the Bronx ( i.e. lots of high rise buildings with subsidized rental units). 70% of the families who attend Mercy Center live on incomes of less than $21k.

Gentrification is going on in the South Bronx, with considerable investment in housing. Much of the new construction comes with a commitment to including “affordable units.” It’s difficult for me to see much of this change in the area around the “hub.” It’s more apparent in the area south, closer to Manhattan. I suspect our portion has too much public housing to immediately suggest itself as a candidate for transformation and, with a sad amount of cynicism, I have come to question the meaning of “affordable” rents. Affordable for whom? For many stayin’ alive is the goal.

Mercy Center is a plucky little operation in the beating heart of Mott Haven that punches above its weight in providing help, hope and hospitality to families in the neighborhood. Founded in 1990, and enlivened by the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Center seeks to empower women and their families to improve their quality of life and liberate themselves from economic poverty. There are a multitude of programs that serve the whole family: ESL, immigrant services, family skills classes, employment/job skills workshops, and youth programs. Before COVID, everything was held at one of their two locations in Mott Haven. Remarkably, the team was quick to pivot in response to the challenges and subsequent possibilities brought about by COVID. They were able to make all these programs function remotely, equipping and training both teachers and students to handle the new way of communicating. They also added an expanded food ministry. The traditional Thanksgiving food pantry was reimagined to a more direct system of distribution that provided close to 500 families with the makings of a Thanksgiving Day feast. Partnering with generous local restaurants, Mercy has been able to distribute meals to our families each week and with generous help from donors the Center has been able to provide fresh produce and baked goods routinely.

Things are gradually returning to a more normal routine and some of the programs are now offered in person. The after school program, where I work, is in full swing. We have close to 60 children, kindergarten through 7th grade, for a few hours every weekday. Homework is the first order of business, as many of our students come from homes where English is not spoken so homework can be a significant challenge. There’s time for play, and chess, and robotics, and crafts; but mostly it’s an opportunity to make sure that our kids get a chance to try new things, to win and sometimes fail, but always to know that perseverance pays off and trying with a full heart is everything.  It’s a joyful place.

Trying hard with a full heart is the Mercy Center way and I am so lucky to have a small role at such a wonderful and hope filled place. Somedays, the world around us may feel like “staying alive” is a reasonable goal. Here at Mercy Center we hope and work for so much more.

Susan Donnelly: New York, New York

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