Neighbors Helping Neighbors: The North Brooklyn Angels serve Brooklynites

November 29, 2017 By Angelica Hill Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Volunteer Brenda Owens chats to regulars at the van. Photos by Angelica Hill
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Chicken burritos with mild salsa, black beans, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, served with an apple, was a recent menu served from of the Angelmobile. Six volunteers served the steady stream of grateful Brooklyn residents lining up for lunch, which they eat in a nearby park under the autumn sun. About 150 people showed up to receive meals, many of whom took the meals home to eat, something others have begun doing as the weather turned colder.

Since Memorial Day, the Angelmobile has served around 1,000 meals a week in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The North Brooklyn Coalition of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit organization locally known as the North Brooklyn Angels, initiated this mobile food project in June.

According to the Brooklyn Community Foundation, one in four Brooklyn residents lives in poverty, and 23.2 percent live below the poverty level, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Neil Sheehan, founder of the North Brooklyn Angels, and Rev. John Merz came up with the idea for the program over coffee at McDonald’s while they were chatting about gentrification in the North Brooklyn community. Sheehan is married to a leading expert on gentrification, Dr. Judith DeSena, professor at St John’s University and author of “Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn: New Kids on the Block,” so they turned to her for advice on planning the mobile project.

Start-up funds came from the Episcopalian Ministry of Long Island, which provided $169,000 and a commitment for the same amount for a second year; and Elaine and Norm Brodsky, who formerly owned a company called Citistorage. Norm is now a motivational speaker and has a variety of other investments. The Brooklyn Angels, who spent about $320,000 on the specially outfitted truck with various fridges and heaters, three sinks, an office area and service window, are about to launch a public funding campaign to raise another $200,000 by the end of this year.

Ryan Kuonen, executive director of the program, defines food insecurity as simply “not being able to afford healthy food. You can’t tell from someone’s appearance if they’re food insecure.” An estimated 1.4 million New York City residents rely on emergency food programs each year. Kuonen, who is from California and has worked in the food distribution industry for most of her career for organizations such as Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) as a tenant organizer, and has been working in North Brooklyn since 2008 in various community organizing roles. She estimated that only about 10 percent of those who get meals from the truck are homeless. “In general, food insecurity reaches a lot further than people realize,” she said.

Claudell Lewis, 37, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, has been driving the Angelmobile for two months after hearing about it while learning to drive a school bus. He plans to stay until he retires, or for as long as the donations keep rolling in. He anticipates retiring around 65, but even then, he said he would continue to volunteer. “The days are perfect. The times are good. I get the weekends off. For me, it’s perfect. I love it,” he said. “It feels like I’m making a difference. It’s the favorite job I’ve ever had.” He described, in his deep voice, how the van serves everybody: “You’ll have different people — sometimes you’ll get homeless people, sometimes you’ll get people with a mental problem, sometimes you get regular working people. So you get a mix.”

Guyron Menitt, a 53-year-old local, has been a regular at the truck since the program began. He spoke of how “lots of people get embarrassed to come out and get food,” but believes that people in the community are slowly taking advantage of the Angelmobile. Menitt, who can’t work because of complications of diabetes, is on disability benefits, and came to the van after hearing about it from a friend. The lifelong Bushwick resident said he loves the chance to get outside and catch up with others getting food from the van.

The daily routine begins at 11:30 a.m., when Lewis drives the 40-foot bright blue truck to collect trays of food from the bustling volunteer kitchen at St. John’s Bread and Life. St John’s Bread and Life prepares and serves about 2,000 meals per day, as well as runs a pantry where it gives out goods to members of the community. The kitchen was filled with the smell of various spices as volunteers danced to “Beat it” by Michael Jackson. Many of the volunteers have special needs, both developmental and physical. The center serves to help them channel their energy into something productive. As Lewis put it, “Everyone has a purpose here.” St. John’s has its own Mobile Soup Kitchen (MSK) and supplies food to a range of different food supply organizations across Brooklyn on and off whenever their assistance is needed.

The partnership between the Angels and St. John’s came about because Sheehan helped found the original St. John’s Soup Kitchen.

The van, with the North Brooklyn Angels logo emblazoned on its side, is hard to miss, and people greet it all along the route. The van arrives at Cooper Park Houses on Jackson Street at midday and volunteers arrive at 12:30 p.m. Regular volunteer James Brodie delivers meals to people in the housing projects who cannot come to the van, primarily elderly residents. Everyone gets a pre-set portion, which the volunteers have been instructed on before they give out the food. Lewis said they sometimes run out, but “to stop that we try to stretch the portions.

“The only thing we try to watch is giving out multiple trays to people,” he added.

The van shuts its doors at 1:45 p.m. and, with Boys II Men on the radio, the teams conscientiously cleans the kitchen area and packages the remaining food. Then the volunteers leave to enjoy the rest of the sunny day and Claudell drives the van back to its parking space. Occasionally there is a knock on the door as they clean from people seeking leftovers. If there are any they give them out. The van is parked and ready for the next day by 3 p.m.

On Jan. 2, Sheehan hopes to open the North Brooklyn Angels’ own kitchen, which will allow them to prepare their own food, save on transportation costs, create more volunteer opportunities and enable them to take donations. The donation fliers for the program describe how $20 will feed someone all week, while $80 will feed a family of four, but the group intends to offer more than sustenance. As Neil Sheena put it, “North Brooklyn Angels hopes to build community cohesion among both old and new residents of North Brooklyn by facilitating the volunteer service of local neighbors in an effort to ease the challenges of those less fortunate in their midst. This less fortunate segment is over-represented by longtime low-income and fixed-income renters.”


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