So Much More Than Stayin’ Alive

Mercy Volunteer Susan Donnelly (left) is pictured with two staff members who also serve in the after-school program at Mercy Center in New York City.
Mercy Volunteer Susan Donnelly (left) is pictured with two staff members who also serve in the after-school program at Mercy Center in New York City.
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April is National Volunteer Month. During this special month of commemorating volunteers, follow along on our blog to read stories by Mercy Volunteer Corps members who reflect on the opportunity to serve and what they receive in turn.

By Mercy Volunteer Susan Donnelly, New York, New York; Adapted with permission from Mercy Volunteer Corps

“As Travolta says, just stayin’ alive.”

I overhear this amusingly misattributed quote from one of the regulars who hangs 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 Mercy Volunteer Corps 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 New York City. It has the highest concentration of New York City Housing Authority projects in the Bronx (i.e., lots of high-rise buildings with subsidized rental units). Seventy percent of the families who attend Mercy Center live on incomes of less than $21 thousand per year.

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. Programs 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. 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, with some programs 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. Some days, the world around us may feel like “stayin’ alive” is a reasonable goal. Here at Mercy Center we hope and work for so much more.

See the original blog post on Mercy Volunteer Corps’ website.