In Public Service: Eugene pushes council to do more for teens

October 23, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dr. Mathieu Eugene is the first Haitian-born person to serve as a member of the New York City Council. Photo courtesy of Councilmember Eugene’s Office
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Dr. Mathieu Eugene is the only medical doctor on the City Council. His status has led to some interesting moments at City Hall. For one thing, council colleagues come up to him all the time with their complaints about minor aches and pains, he said.

“I don’t mind,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle in a recent interview. “I’m happy to help. But I always tell them to go to their doctor.”

In addition to his role as the council’s only doctor, Eugene is a historical figure for another reason. He is the first Haitian-born member of the City Council.

He is a graduate of Regina Assumpta College in Haiti and earned his medical degree from the Universidad Del Norte Este in Mexico.

Eugene, a Democrat, represents the 40th Council District. The district takes in all or part of several neighborhoods, including Kensington, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Ditmas Park, Crown Heights and East Flatbush.

A great deal of his time is spent dealing with issues involving young people.

Eugene, who has served as chairman of the council’s Youth Services Committee since 2014, said the city should be doing more to help children and teenagers enjoy a better quality of life.

He has a long history of developing and overseeing programs to keep kids off the streets.

In 1994, Eugene founded Youth Education and Sports (YES), a nonprofit organization for young people. “I have spent a lot of years in my life helping young people,” he told the Eagle. “I know what activities for youth did for me.”

As a young man growing up in Haiti, he was involved in the Boy Scouts and took martial arts lessons. “It builds character,” he said.

Eugene recalled how a chance encounter led him to start YES. “I had come to the U.S. and I was walking on Flatbush Avenue. I saw a young boy. He had a big knife. He was just 12 or 14 years old,” he said, sounding like he was still shocked by the memory.

Eugene stopped to talk to the boy. “He said he wasn’t going to use the knife to attack anyone. He just wanted to be able to defend himself. I said to myself, ‘He does not want to be a criminal.’ That moment was the beginning of my organization,” Eugene said.

The boy became one of the first members of YES.

Eugene spread the word about the formation of YES throughout the community by posting flyers at churches. He also relied on word of mouth.

There was a great deal of interest from parents since the beginning. “Parents needed a place to put their children,” Eugene said.

YES offered sports programs like basketball and martial arts. Eugene also added music, dance and art programs. The organization operated out of several sites, including church gymnasiums. There were after-school programs, as well as a Saturday program that ran all day.

“Young people couldn’t wait to come in,” Eugene said.

He recalled a ceremony where he handed out trophies to kids from YES who had participated in a basketball program. One 16-year-old boy insisted on having the microphone. Eugene gave the kid the mic and was touched by what the young man had to say. “I want to thank you for what you are doing for me. If not for you, I would be in jail,” the teen told Eugene.

Due to his council duties, Eugene no longer plays an active role at YES.

As chairman of the Youth Services Committee, Eugene often invites program directors to come and testify about issues facing the city’s young people. “We have a moral obligation to provide young people with the resources to be the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “Otherwise, we will pay the consequences later on.”

He thinks it’s best to start serving the needs of young people early, when they are still young children. “Broken families are a big part of the problem,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. We have to strengthen families.”

Eugene said he is so passionate about the issue because he believes that his life would have been very different if he had not been involved in youth activities as a child.

Young people want to work and want to live meaningful lives, he said. He pointed to the fact that 135,000 teens applied for jobs through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program two years ago. There were 35,000 jobs available.

“I went to the speaker and I said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ We have enough resources to provide jobs for all young people. We got more funding,” Eugene said. The city is making progress, he said. Last year 45,000 jobs were available, and this past summer 50,000 were available.

The program is important, he said, because teens who work in the Summer Youth Employment Program do better in school.

His new mission is to secure funding to expand the jobs program beyond the summer months so that kids can get after-school jobs during the school year. “It’s the best investment we can make. It’s good for New York City,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is to do nothing.”

He said he also works with the private sector to try and get jobs for young people.

Putting on his doctor’s white coat, Eugene reaches out to families by sponsoring health fairs where residents can undergo check-ups and cancer screenings for free. He conducts the fairs in conjunction with Brooklyn hospitals like Maimonides Medical Center.

Eugene described himself as a strong advocate for health and said he is concerned about changes in the delivery of health care. “We have seen hospitals close here in New York City,” he said. Kings County Hospital is in his district.

Eugene said he has spoken numerous times to his council colleagues about hospitals, telling them, “Guys, we have to protect the hospitals.”

Eugene ran for his council seat in 2007. Yvette Clarke, who held the seat, was elected to Congress and left the City Council.

People asked him to run for the council, he told the Eagle. At first, he was reluctant. But then he saw how he could use the council as a platform to help people and he decided to run.

Prior to running for City Council, Eugene was active in his community. He was a member of Community Board 14 (Flatbush-Kensington-parts of Midwood). “I thought it was good experience for me. I had the opportunity to see how the city government worked,” he said.

As a councilmember, Eugene has gotten along well with both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations. “People in both administrations were doing the best they could. What is of concern is that the priorities are different from one administration to the next,” he said.

Eugene said he is also deeply concerned about the city’s housing crisis. “People come to my district office all the time looking for help with housing. It has such a negative impact on the quality of life to have everyone living together in a cramped space or worried about being evicted,” he said.

Eugene said he believes the federal and state governments should become involved in solving the city’s housing crisis. “The city and state need to come together to solve the problem. Housing and jobs are connected,” he said.

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