Two weeks ago, families in East Harlem received a letter announcing that the local Children’s Aid Center will be closing by the end of summer 2018. The Center, the letter read, was running out of money and its 93-year-old building is “beyond repair.”
The word spread quickly. An alumna in Huntsville, Alabama shared his remorse on Facebook. Parents set up online support groups to organize pushback in the form of petitions and protests. Joannie Acevedo, 45, who is both an alumna and a parent, did all of the above and more. She set up a GoFundMe page, contacted several news organizations, and called the Children’s Aid public relations director until he remembered her full name.
Children’s Aid is a nonprofit with 45 citywide sites that provides comprehensive care for children in poverty. It runs early childhood programs to prepare five-year-olds for kindergarten and after-school activities to keep children off the street. Counselors educate teens on sex education and mental health. But more than that, it is the heart of the community. In a place like East Harlem where 29 percent of residents and nearly half of its children live below the poverty line, Children’s Aid is cherished.
“This is our second home,” Acevedo said. “Closing the center, it’s like ripping out my childhood. We’re not gonna let it happen.”
Community members worry that if the East Harlem Center closes, children will have nowhere else to go for help. In a public meeting held on March 22, David Layman, CEO of Children’s Aid, and Miriam Martinez, its Chief Program Officer, said they will try to place all the children in similar programs within East Harlem.
But “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a waste of time,” said Carmen Cruz, a local resident and community activist. “Maybe they will relocate some kids, 100 kids or so, but not all of them.”
The community is pushing back on the closure and Acevedo intends to lead the movement. She has a special connection to the Center. Her single mother, Ana Quiñones, was on public assistance when Joannie was two. The Center, on E 101st Street and Lexington Avenue, gave Quiñones a job and a place to send her kids. For many years, she worked as a counselor, sex education teacher, and receptionist there.
Generation after generation, the Acevedo family stayed attached to the Center. Ana became the “mother hen” who knew every kid that came and left. Joannie Acevedo, and her six siblings and two children, frequented the Center as volunteers and beneficiaries. She even met her best friend of 30 years there, who is now the godmother for her kids.
Acevedo knows every nook and cranny of the neighborhood and greets people on a first name basis, including the workers at Lexington Pizza Parlour across from Children’s Aid East Harlem Center. Over a plate of chicken pizza and a cup of lemonade, Acevedo filmed a short Facebook live segment to update her followers on what might happen to the Center.
“Hold on, give me one second,” said Acevedo as she sprung up to greet an older woman. “Mama West!”
Mama West, a musician and designer for singer Roberta Flack, is Acevedo’s family friend, who lived right next door from her mother. They all met through Children’s Aid, Acevedo said.
After exchanging hugs and How-are-yous, the two shared what they knew about the center closing. “When I heard that they were gonna sell it, I was disheartened to the core,” Mama West said, taking off her leopard print sunglasses. “I can’t even imagine this community without the center. Some places you should not touch.”
“They wanna do a high-rise,” said Acevedo. “That’s why we’re gonna fight!”
“Well, how’re you gonna fight it if it’s already sold?”
“Nah, we can fight it.”
“Oh, you gotta fight big! This is a shame!” said Mama West. Then she pointed at Acevedo. “This is a fighter here.”
Most of Acevedo’s childhood memories, like pillow fights at sleepovers and water fights at block parties, are from Children’s Aid. At Christmas time, Children’s Aid offered free family dinners and gifts to every child.
She pulled at her khaki-green Nike windbreaker, which she got as a gift at 14. “This is the official, first jacket that came out that nobody got,” Acevedo said. “I tell my daughter, ‘it’s older than you, baby.”
The Center even took her to see her first Broadway show, “The Phantom of the Opera,” as well as several art museums and ballet performances. As a result, Acevedo said, she developed a taste for the fine arts. “They told us how to tell apart Picasso from Vincent van Gogh. People are like, ‘see this kid from Spanish Harlem, she knows all this art stuff!’”
Yet the Center was more than just a place to hang out. It trained Acevedo for her career through the Work Readiness program. She learned how to dress for business meetings, network, write resumes, and draft proposals. “It instilled in me that I’m the boss, I can do everything I want,” she said. “The sky’s the limit.”
Acevedo is a guest services agent at Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, where she started as a housekeeper 14 years ago. Her aspiration is to go back to school for baking and start a dessert shop. Acevedo has wanted to become a chocolatier ever since making sweets at a bake sale for Children’s Aid.
After she finished her pizza, another childhood friend, Noel Viruet, joined Acevedo. The two have known each other since birth. At one time, Acevedo’s mother was his counselor at Children’s Aid.
They made a short stop in front of the Center before heading home. Viruet froze in front of the doors and grew silent. Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Our lives would have been a lot different,” he said after some time. “For those of us that had it hard and were headed in the wrong direction, Children’s Aid was the savior. This is so sad.”