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Love and Courage in East Harlem: Then and Now

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By Catherine Walsh, communications specialist

Before the coronavirus devastated New York City, I spent several days with Sister Suzanne Deliee in East Harlem. I went with her to Little Sisters of the Assumption (LSA) Family Health Service, a social service agency where she works, and CREA (Centro de Recursos Educativos para Adultos), an adult learning center on whose board of directors she serves.

Since then, I have kept in touch with Sister Suzanne and the people she works with, receiving updates on their creative responses to the coronavirus. My hope is that the photos below—taken before social distancing—speak to the ongoing love, courage and resilience of East Harlem’s Spanish-speaking immigrant people, and to Sister Suzanne’s commitment to them. We share this story in honor of World Refugee Day, as the people portrayed here are refugees from hunger, instability and violence in their home countries, and they seek new beginnings.


LSA Family Health Service: Where individuals and families receive holistic care



CAPTION: Before the pandemic temporarily shut down the LSA Family Health Service office, mothers and children spent countless hours in its convivial meeting rooms. The coronavirus crisis has made individuals and families more reliant than ever on the agency’s comprehensive services, which still include in-home nurses’ visits, food and financial assistance, other emergency aid, and online classes. (LSA photo)
Before the pandemic temporarily shut down the LSA Family Health Service office, mothers and children spent countless hours in its convivial meeting rooms. The coronavirus crisis has made individuals and families more reliant than ever on the agency’s comprehensive services, which still include in-home nurses’ visits, food and financial assistance, other emergency aid, and online classes. (LSA photo)

CAPTION: East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is not only one of Manhattan’s poorest neighborhoods, but it is also one that has been most affected by the pandemic. Extended families live in small apartments where the virus spreads quickly. And many adults have lost their low-wage jobs in the service economy. “People are responding to the needs of their families with strength and courage,” said Sister Suzanne. “But it’s hard because they haven’t been able to work as housekeepers or restaurant cooks during the shutdown.” (Catherine Walsh photo)
East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is not only one of Manhattan’s poorest neighborhoods, but it is also one that has been most affected by the pandemic. Extended families live in small apartments where the virus spreads quickly. And many adults have lost their low-wage jobs in the service economy. “People are responding to the needs of their families with strength and courage,” said Sister Suzanne. “But it’s hard because they haven’t been able to work as housekeepers or restaurant cooks during the shutdown.” (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: Sharing a happy moment at LSA Family Health Service, where Sister Suzanne teaches classes like Día a Día con Tu Bebé (“Day by Day with Your Baby”). Before she “retired” five years ago and became a volunteer, Sister Suzanne climbed countless flights of stairs in East Harlem tenements for more than 20 years, helping new mothers care for their infants. A Sister of Mercy who ministered in Nicaragua with Maryknoll nuns for 13 years, Sister Suzanne returned home in 1993 to care for her father and to find a job working with Latin American immigrants. A friend told her about LSA, and she has been here ever since. (Catherine Walsh photo)
Sharing a happy moment at LSA Family Health Service, where Sister Suzanne teaches classes like Día a Día con Tu Bebé (“Day by Day with Your Baby”). Before she “retired” five years ago and became a volunteer, Sister Suzanne climbed countless flights of stairs in East Harlem tenements for more than 20 years, helping new mothers care for their infants. A Sister of Mercy who ministered in Nicaragua with Maryknoll nuns for 13 years, Sister Suzanne returned home in 1993 to care for her father and to find a job working with Latin American immigrants. A friend told her about LSA, and she has been here ever since. (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: Moms and moms-to-be (front row) at an LSA Family Health Service lactation class with (back row) Yaling Ramirez (LSA consultant), Victoria Sosa (Acceso Total host on Telemundo47), Sister Suzanne and Kelly Orozcob (LSA consultant). A labor-and-delivery class, like the lactation class, is offered by LSA several times a year, in conjunction with New York’s Health Department. “These classes enable us not only to teach, but also to create a supportive environment for immigrants, who are far from their families,” said Sister Suzanne. “Here, people can vent their insecurities while at the same time learning to care for their babies.” The agency’s classes are now held by Zoom video. (LSA photo)
Moms and moms-to-be (front row) at an LSA Family Health Service lactation class with (back row) Yaling Ramirez (LSA consultant), Victoria Sosa (Acceso Total host on Telemundo47), Sister Suzanne and Kelly Orozcob (LSA consultant). A labor-and-delivery class, like the lactation class, is offered by LSA several times a year, in conjunction with New York’s Health Department. “These classes enable us not only to teach, but also to create a supportive environment for immigrants, who are far from their families,” said Sister Suzanne. “Here, people can vent their insecurities while at the same time learning to care for their babies.” The agency’s classes are now held by Zoom video. (LSA photo)

CAPTION: Breakfast at the LSA Family Health Service office is one of the things that families miss during the pandemic shutdown. What has impressed Sister Suzanne, prior to the pandemic and now, is “the strength and courage of the families in front of so many challenges,” including food insecurity, unsafe housing and fear of U.S. immigration officials. She points out that LSA reaches nearly 10,000 people each year with such services as a food pantry, thrift shop, legal aid and an environmental program that helps make homes safer for East Harlem children, who suffer from a high rate of asthma. (LSA photo)
Breakfast at the LSA Family Health Service office is one of the things that families miss during the pandemic shutdown. What has impressed Sister Suzanne, prior to the pandemic and now, is “the strength and courage of the families in front of so many challenges,” including food insecurity, unsafe housing and fear of U.S. immigration officials. She points out that LSA reaches nearly 10,000 people each year with such services as a food pantry, thrift shop, legal aid and an environmental program that helps make homes safer for East Harlem children, who suffer from a high rate of asthma. (LSA photo)

CAPTION: Sister Suzanne listens to mothers at an LSA Family Health Service parenting class in pre-pandemic times. These days, Zoom video parenting classes are popular, she says. “The mothers are eager to get together and hear about their friends and co-classmates, to share their experiences, to ask questions and offer suggestions.” One mother took part in a class recently by cell phone while walking home from a doctor’s appointment with her baby in the stroller. (LSA photo)
Sister Suzanne listens to mothers at an LSA Family Health Service parenting class in pre-pandemic times. These days, Zoom video parenting classes are popular, she says. “The mothers are eager to get together and hear about their friends and co-classmates, to share their experiences, to ask questions and offer suggestions.” One mother took part in a class recently by cell phone while walking home from a doctor’s appointment with her baby in the stroller. (LSA photo)

CAPTION: Bonds forged before the pandemic allow Sister Suzanne and LSA Family Health Service staff—many of them immigrants—to work well together remotely. (From left) Thangi Garcia, Wendy Mejia, Sister Suzanne, Yolanda Otero, Maria Ramirez and Elva Torres. Noted Reada Bunin Edelstein, the agency’s CEO, “Foundations that support us don’t know of another agency where people feel so welcome and safe. The degree of trust is unusual and it’s due to our staff and people like Sister Suzanne, who is so loved and deeply trusted in the community.” (Catherine Walsh photo)
Bonds forged before the pandemic allow Sister Suzanne and LSA Family Health Service staff—many of them immigrants—to work well together remotely. (From left) Thangi Garcia, Wendy Mejia, Sister Suzanne, Yolanda Otero, Maria Ramirez and Elva Torres. Noted Reada Bunin Edelstein, the agency’s CEO, “Foundations that support us don’t know of another agency where people feel so welcome and safe. The degree of trust is unusual and it’s due to our staff and people like Sister Suzanne, who is so loved and deeply trusted in the community.” (Catherine Walsh photo)

CREA: Where adults discover their talents and build better lives


CAPTION: Sister Suzanne chats with CREA students studying for their high-school equivalency exam. She saw the need for the adult learning center upon encountering two women in tears who had been asked to leave an English-as-a-second language (ESL) class. “They weren’t literate in Spanish and couldn’t keep up,” she said. Many CREA students speak an indigenous language as a first language; some have never been to school before and come to CREA to learn basic Spanish literacy, as well as to take ESL classes. The center is offering some online classes during the pandemic. (Catherine Walsh photo)
Sister Suzanne chats with CREA students studying for their high-school equivalency exam. She saw the need for the adult learning center upon encountering two women in tears who had been asked to leave an English-as-a-second language (ESL) class. “They weren’t literate in Spanish and couldn’t keep up,” she said. Many CREA students speak an indigenous language as a first language; some have never been to school before and come to CREA to learn basic Spanish literacy, as well as to take ESL classes. The center is offering some online classes during the pandemic. (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: Four women on a mission. Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Martinez (left) founded the CREA adult learning center in conjunction with the Mexican Consulate in New York City in 2013. Sister Suzanne (center), Dorothy Calvani (standing) and Dava Weinstein (right) serve on CREA’s board and work closely with Lupita to help the center offer not only literacy classes, but also workshops on subjects ranging from leadership and self-esteem to running a business. During the pandemic, the women and other board members have been in constant touch by phone and have participated in Zoom board meetings. (Catherine Walsh photo)
Four women on a mission. Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Martinez (left) founded the CREA adult learning center in conjunction with the Mexican Consulate in New York City in 2013. Sister Suzanne (center), Dorothy Calvani (standing) and Dava Weinstein (right) serve on CREA’s board and work closely with Lupita to help the center offer not only literacy classes, but also workshops on subjects ranging from leadership and self-esteem to running a business. During the pandemic, the women and other board members have been in constant touch by phone and have participated in Zoom board meetings. (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: CREA’s small classes and close-knit community are its hallmarks. Although many students fled poverty and violence in their home countries, and face daunting challenges in New York City, what strikes a visitor is their enthusiasm for learning. A 57-year-old female student, who sold firewood as a child with her seven siblings instead of going to school, said, “I love CREA because now I can read.” A grandmother in her 60’s proclaimed, “Now I can help my grandchildren with their homework.” (Catherine Walsh photo)
CREA’s small classes and close-knit community are its hallmarks. Although many students fled poverty and violence in their home countries, and face daunting challenges in New York City, what strikes a visitor is their enthusiasm for learning. A 57-year-old female student, who sold firewood as a child with her seven siblings instead of going to school, said, “I love CREA because now I can read.” A grandmother in her 60’s proclaimed, “Now I can help my grandchildren with their homework.” (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: Sharing a laugh with a student. In her CREA board of directors’ profile, Sister Suzanne, age 82,  calls her ministry with East Harlem’s people “the most treasured part” of her life. She also notes that her passions include not only immigration, the climate and racism, but also “wherever we find injustice, hatred and devastation, wherever families cannot live life.” The nun threw a CREA fundraiser for her 80th birthday in 2018 and is grateful for financial support provided to CREA by the Northeast Ministry Fund of the Sisters of Mercy. (Catherine Walsh photo)
Sharing a laugh with a student. In her CREA board of directors’ profile, Sister Suzanne, age 82, calls her ministry with East Harlem’s people “the most treasured part” of her life. She also notes that her passions include not only immigration, the climate and racism, but also “wherever we find injustice, hatred and devastation, wherever families cannot live life.” The nun threw a CREA fundraiser for her 80th birthday in 2018 and is grateful for financial support provided to CREA by the Northeast Ministry Fund of the Sisters of Mercy. (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: The joy of a good book club. Before coronavirus closed New York City, the CREA Reading Club met at the home of Paulina Concha, CREA’s president and board chairperson (standing, back row). Other CREA staff include Lupita Martinez (second row, far left), CREA’s founder. The young man wearing glasses, in the second row, came to CREA knowing no English and is now in college. The CREA Reading Club has been meeting by Zoom video during the pandemic. (CREA photo)
The joy of a good book club. Before coronavirus closed New York City, the CREA Reading Club met at the home of Paulina Concha, CREA’s president and board chairperson (standing, back row). Other CREA staff include Lupita Martinez (second row, far left), CREA’s founder. The young man wearing glasses, in the second row, came to CREA knowing no English and is now in college. The CREA Reading Club has been meeting by Zoom video during the pandemic. (CREA photo)

CAPTION: Each of CREA’s nearly 160 adult students, like this woman, learn first-hand that their new skills get them better jobs, make them more effective parents, and help them contribute to the community. “When students come to us, they don’t know they are very talented people,” says founder Lupita Martinez. “It’s amazing to see them grow.” Lupita, Sister Suzanne and CREA’s other supporters believe that the “Spirit of America”—in the words of this student’s jersey—is about helping each other reach our potential and fulfill our nation’s ideals. (Catherine Walsh photo)
Each of CREA’s nearly 160 adult students, like this woman, learn first-hand that their new skills get them better jobs, make them more effective parents, and help them contribute to the community. “When students come to us, they don’t know they are very talented people,” says founder Lupita Martinez. “It’s amazing to see them grow.” Lupita, Sister Suzanne and CREA’s other supporters believe that the “Spirit of America”—in the words of this student’s jersey—is about helping each other reach our potential and fulfill our nation’s ideals. (Catherine Walsh photo)

CAPTION: Joy of accomplishment! This 2019 CREA graduation celebrated students who demonstrated proficiency at these levels: elementary (grades 1-6), secondary (grades 7-9) and high school-equivalency. The CREA community looks forward to a post-pandemic future when graduations can once again be held in-person. “There’s always lots of happy tears at the graduation ceremonies,” said Sister Suzanne. “People see how far they’ve come with CREA’s support, and they know that they can keep learning and growing.”
Joy of accomplishment! This 2019 CREA graduation celebrated students who demonstrated proficiency at these levels: elementary (grades 1-6), secondary (grades 7-9) and high school-equivalency. The CREA community looks forward to a post-pandemic future when graduations can once again be held in-person. “There’s always lots of happy tears at the graduation ceremonies,” said Sister Suzanne. “People see how far they’ve come with CREA’s support, and they know that they can keep learning and growing.”