North Brooklyn Angels luncheon reflects seven years of service to the community

June 14, 2024 Mandie-Beth Chau
Kendall Charter, Honoree Paul Samulski, Elaine Brodsky, Neil Sheehan, Kendra Chiu and Honoree Kuba Brown. Brooklyn Eagle photos by John McCarten
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Every week, nearly 2,000 people who might otherwise be malnourished in North Brooklyn find regular sustenance through something called North Brooklyn Angels. That organization and its leadership were honored at a fundraiser held at the Church of Ascension in Greenpoint. 

The event brought in more than $300,000 to continue the work that requires 50-60 volunteers and staff members year-round. 

“We started thinking about building a food project that was primarily about bringing newer affluent residents together with long-standing residents to aid their neighbors. That’s why we came up with the tagline ‘neighbors helping neighbors,’” said Rev. John Merz, a co-founder and vice chair of North Brooklyn Angels and Vicar of the Church of Ascension in Greenpoint. “In gentrification, parallel communities inhabit the same space, but they don’t have any interaction. We wanted to bring people together to start to see their community more intimately but also to work with their neighbors, serving their neighbors.”

The organization was founded in June 2017 by Merz and Neil Sheehan to address the rising inaccessibility of food and necessities as a result of accelerated gentrification in North Brooklyn neighborhoods. The original distribution process involved a custom-built food truck equipped with volunteers, fridges, microwaves and an office. 

“I’ve been volunteering with North Brooklyn Angels for three years now, ever since I moved to New York, and it’s been a great way to connect with the community and make me feel at home here,” said Gigi Vermylen, a regular volunteer. “It’s always special when I leave meal packing in the mornings, and I see people in the parks eating the meals that we just made. It hits close to home.”

Now, there are multiple food trucks, referred to as Angelmobiles, which serve nine locations across North Brooklyn. The organization is able to provide 1,800 hot meals seven days a week.

Guests enjoy lunch.
Guests enjoy lunch.

A lot of these folks have been in North Brooklyn for generations, and while they may not have reaped the benefits of gentrification themselves, they do come to us,said Kendra Chiu, executive director of North Brooklyn Angels.What I love about the two Angelmobiles and our van is there’s a community that builds around each of them. It’s almost like a block party, but it’s also a nice way for volunteers to check in on folks who are waiting on the line.”

The fourth annual luncheon on Tuesday, June 11, was an opportunity to inform donors about the organization’s progress and to honor outstanding donors Kuba J. Brown, business manager and financial secretary of Local 94, and Paul Samulski, a board member and president of the North Brooklyn Chamber. 

Samulski was honored with the Local Hero Award, and Brown was honored with the Guardian Angel Award. Both have been involved with North Brooklyn Angels for several years and dedicated their resources and talents to better facilitate the organization’s work

“I got involved at the very beginning of the pandemic when things were all moving inside, and they changed the whole nature of serving hot meals on the street and preparing and packing them inside instead,said Samulski.I helped set up the assembly line in order to be able to do that internally. Working the pandemic was so unique and special. Food insecurity is not going away. That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we continue to try and get better and bigger and do what we can do.”

Honoree Paul Samulski gives remarks.
Honoree Paul Samulski gives remarks.

This year, North Brooklyn Angels expanded into Bushwick and opened a second kitchen in Greenpoint. The organization distributed 100,000 meals, according to Chiu.

The organization has around 800 annual volunteers, and volunteer opportunities are increasing as it expands. Recent growth includes the Angel Babies project and the Sunday program, which allows the organization to feed locals seven days a week.

“The Sunday program was a big milestone because, now, we’re working seven days a week. It also gave us the ability to access volunteers on a weekend,” said Phil Mauro, a longtime North Brooklyn Angels board member. 
“Each week, we rely on about 50 to 60 volunteers to keep this operation going. We’ve got about five to six people in the kitchen. We’ve got host committees at each of our outposts,” said Chiu. “We have two full-time staff members, a couple of part-timers, but the 800 volunteers a year is very real. They’re really the engine that keeps us going.”

The Angelmobile.
The Angelmobile.

Angel Babies is the program undergoing the most expansion at the moment. The project began with giveaway events that occurred several times a year, but now the program will provide families with strollers, diapers and other essentials in a new retail space.

“I was the biggest critic of the fact that we were never going to find something outside of food,Mauro said.We now service a whole group of the community with the women, infants and children (WIC) program where we get them all sorts of baby essentials. Now, we’re taking that program and morphing it into something different, where we’re going to be doing this on a day-to-day basis. We’re going to be able to have night shifts for volunteers, and we’ll be getting stuff in the hands of people who need it.”

“Several times a year, we do big giveaways for families. We work with local organizations like WIC, and now it is going to be more on the spot: like someone needs a stroller, and we get it to them as soon as possible,said Lauren Bakoian, North Brooklyn Angels program manager. 

Volunteer Alyssa Simon serves food.
Volunteer Alyssa Simon serves food.

The office space in the Angelmobiles will eventually be used to assist patrons with other services, such as finding housing, legal resources and healthcare. Chiu described how regular patrons of the trucks are able to build relationships with the volunteers, enabling volunteers to resolve issues beyond food insecurity.

“It’s a social aspect for them as well. We provide meals, we listen to them, and then we refer them to our partners based on what their needs are,” said Chiu. “If we got someone who’s struggling with housing, we’ll refer them to St. Nick’s Alliance. If we’ve got folks who are struggling with access to benefits, we’ll refer them to our elected officials who have constituent services. They come to know us, and they learn to trust and feel safe with us.”

Guests Congregate Before the Program Begins.
Guests congregate before the program begins.

Merz described how essential the hyperlocal aspect of the organization is to best serve the neighborhood. Growth for North Brooklyn Angels is focused on addressing growing needs in North Brooklyn neighborhoods rather than expanding as an organization. 
“The goal is getting as many people involved in the work,” said Merz. “We live in a society in which growth is so highly valued. We don’t want to outgrow being a grassroots, neighborhood, community organization with that kind of integrity. Our mission is people and relationships.”

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