24 Sep

National Geographic: Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour

Photo by Kieran Kesner for National Geographic

A feature on neighborhoods visited by Pope Francis on his US tour includes profiles of families in LSA Family Health Service’s Environmental Health Services program.


Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour

In East Harlem, families live with traffic exhaust, cockroaches, and mold. Kids there are three times more likely to suffer an asthma attack that sends them to an ER.

By Lindsey Konkel

Photographs by Kieran Kesner

PUBLISHED THU SEP 24 07:00:00 EDT 2015


Less than a block from where the pope will meet East Harlem families Friday at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Elizabeth Gonzalez shares a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing project with her three kids ranging in age from 15 to 20.

Cockroaches scurry across the walls and floor. She’s tried to get rid of them, but they keep coming back—through the electric outlets and from under the sink, where leaking pipes create a black sludge. Her floor is wet, her walls damp and moldy. Garbage bags stacked in the living room keep the family’s possessions dry.

Gonzalez thumbs through a notebook full of unresolved maintenance requests for her home. It takes months for the New York City Housing Authority to respond to such requests. Often maintenance workers don’t come when they say they’re going to come, even after she’s taken the day off work. And when they do finally show up, they offer little help, she says.

Everyone in her family has asthma. Cockroaches and mold trigger attacks.

“I’m happy to have a roof over my head, but this apartment is keeping us sick,” says Gonzales, a grade school assistant teacher who makes only $26,000 a year.

“People feel trapped. They hold on to these awful apartments, because it’s all they have. It’s their home, their community,” says Ray Lopez, director of environmental health and family asthma for LSA Family Health Service, a nonprofit that serves more than 7,000 East Harlem residents, including Gonzalez and Smith.

LSA was founded by the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a religious order of nuns that provides health services to poor families around the world. Pope Francis’ own family sought help from the Little Sisters of the Assumption in Barrio de Flores, the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood where he grew up.

José Espinoza, who has a daughter with asthma, gets family health services through LSA. Under the canopy of his Second Avenue flower stand, Espinoza wraps a bouquet of sunflowers and describes the poor conditions of his sixth-floor walk-up apartment. It’s infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, and he worries that allergies to the insects trigger his daughter’s asthma attacks and make his other children sick.

Read the full article online

Download PDF

26 Aug

LSA Family to See Pope Francis

Associated Press: Mexicana pedirá al papa ayuda para traer a sus hijos a EEUU (as published by Telemundo) / Mexican mother would ask the Pope for help in bringing her children to the U.S.

Telemundo: Madre de origen mixteco conocerá al papa Francisco durante su visita a Nueva York (video) / Mother of Mixteco origin will see Pope Francis during his visit to New York

Vida Nueva: Iglesia en el Mundo: Viaje a Cuba y Estados Unidos / The Church in the World: Visit to Cuba and the United States

August 26, 2015 — Martina Juarez and her family will attend Pope Francis’ visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels school in East Harlem as representatives of Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service. Martina will join representatives from a selection of Catholic Charities and students from the school, around 200 people in total, who will be present at the Pope’s visit to the school on September 25th.

Martina and her family were invited to attend as representatives of LSA and our work in East Harlem. She is a dedicated mother and a grandmother and has benefited from several LSA programs and services over the years. As a recently arrived immigrant from Mexico, Martina learned about the organization through word of mouth and initially came for assistance from our Food Pantry. When her children were small, her family participated in our early childhood programs: Parenting and Child Development and Early Intervention for children with developmental delays. Now that her children are older, they are enrolled in our homework help and tutoring programs, and her daughter, Fabiola, is in our Girls Mentoring program.

We are honored to be invited by the Archdiocese of NY to represent the families of East Harlem in welcoming Pope Francis to New York City.

26 Jun

LSA Featured in Channel NewsAsia Report on Child Poverty

2015-6-26 CNA Child Poverty


One in three children living in poverty in US: UNICEF

According to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, one in three children living in the world’s richest nation are in poverty, with over 20,000 children estimated to be living in family centres in New York City

By William Denselow
POSTED: 21 Jun 2015 18:04

NEW YORK: When it comes to child poverty in the United States, the statistics are troubling.

According to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, one in three children living in the world’s richest nation are in poverty.

In New York City, it is estimated that over 20,000 children live in family shelters – an increase of over 250 per cent from 20 years ago. Child advocacy groups say this trend must stop to give this generation a fighting chance to escape a cycle of poverty.

For children growing up in poverty the odds are stacked against them. Living in shelters or shared apartments – experts say those conditions stunt development making it hard to recover in later life.

“From a very early age they’re struggling to relate to other children and to have positive relationships with other adults in their lives and down the road, 10-15 years down the road, that same struggle is going to be even more pronounced,” said Heather Mitchell, home visiting director at LSA Family Health Service.

But some kids are lucky. Thanks to groups like Little Sisters in New York’s East Harlem, children and parents alike are given the resources to try and overcome some of these developmental barriers.

Read/View the full story on Channel NewsAsia.com

08 May

Board Chair Scott DePetris Featured on Markets Media

Our Board Chair, Scott DePetris, spoke with Markets Media about the inspiration and drive behind his work with LSA.

(Full text below)

2015-5-8 Markets Media

Portware’s DePetris Gives Back

Published online by Markets Media at: http://marketsmedia.com/portwares-depetris-gives-back/ 

May 8, 2015

If you want something done, ask a busy person, the saying goes. That certainly applies to Scott DePetris, Portware president and chief operating officer. In addition to a demanding full-time job as a top executive at a leading trading-technology provider, DePetris devotes 15-20 hours a week to his role as chairman of LSA Family Health Service, a not-for-profit in East Harlem.

Founded in 1958 by the Little Sisters of the Assumption, LSA provides a multi-programmatic way of dealing with family health, focusing on the emotional, spiritual, educational and mental health of families, especially those with young children. The group’s working premise is that the earlier the intervention, the better chance children have of finding a niche in the world.

After the financial crisis, LSA, like many other non-profits, experienced difficulties as charitable donations took a hit. It was also a challenging time for Portware. “Most financial tech companies felt that in one way, shape or form, and we felt it in the business here,” DePetris said. “In the not-for-profit world, I was making decisions that would effect the services our families would receive, which meant several hundred children might not receive the basic necessities they desperately needed. It puts things into perspective.”

He was introduced to LSA in 1999 by a friend from college. At the time, he was living on 90th St. in the Upper East Side, only 25 blocks but at the same time a world apart from LSA, located on East 115th.

“We were both Fairfield University graduates, which is a school with a long history of volunteerism; it’s just part of the culture of Fairfield University,” DePetris said. At the time, he was “living a really great life at the age of 21, but 25 blocks away it is a completely different world, and that just struck me as odd.”

“The infant mortality rate in East Harlem is unbelievably high and you are in one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” DePetris continued. “The asthma rates are incredibly high. The conditions that some of these folks live in are kind of unjust, at the very best.”

DePetris has had numerous opportunities to apply the lessons he’s learned during his years at Portware to the not-for-profit world. Post-crisis, he and other LSA board members created a strategic plan in order “to work off an incredible foundation, strengthen the organization and plan for future growth. We wanted to create a dynamic, thriving agency that could endure any future challenges,” he said. “We started to assemble a senior team that could help the program directors continue to do what they do. The program directors are the ones who are on the ground doing the early intervention work, that are going into the homes and seeing if there is mold and whether or not there are conditions that would create asthma symptoms for their children. They are the ones going into the homes and doing the prenatal visits and providing the care these families need.”

Recently, DePetris and his partner, Portware CEO Alfred Eskandar, hosted a roundtable for a group of kids at the company’s offices downtown. “Coming from East Harlem, many of them have not been south of 96th Street, let alone down here, so they got to see things they have not seen, they got to walk the financial district,” he said. “We listened to their hopes, their dreams, and we shared our experiences, the importance of schools, going to college, how we got to where we were, and just listened to what they wanted to do. They ranged in age from probably 9 to 16, so their hopes were anywhere from being an astronaut to being an accountant.”

Banks and investment firms are commonly associated with greed and self-centeredness, but DePetris noted there is much more to the sector, under the surface.

“Wall Street in general is a really philanthropic world — I don’t think it gets enough credit for its philanthropy,” he said. “That can be as simple as donating money, but beyond that a lot of people work tirelessly for a lot of different organizations.”

23 Oct

Wall Street Journal: Asthma Complaints Followed East Harlem Blast

The Wall Street Journal featured LSA in a story on a rise in asthma complaints following the East Harlem gas explosion of March 2014.

Download a pdf of the article

Asthma Complaints Followed East Harlem Blast

By Laura Kusisto

A nonprofit health group in East Harlem says a sharp increase in referrals to its asthma program in the wake of last spring’s gas explosion in the neighborhood is raising concerns that the blast hurt the respiratory health of some residents.

LSA Family Health Service said it received 52 referrals to its environmental health program between the beginning of March and the end of May, up from 17 in the three months between December and February and up 63% from the year-earlier period.

The group said the increase was due in large part to referrals for families who lived near the site of the deadly March 12 explosion and who had concerns about asthma, lead dust or pest control issues related to the explosion and its aftermath.

Of 22 families who were referred to the program, 11 had problems with asthma and four had other respiratory concerns.

The figures aren’t conclusive, and some experts think pre-existing housing conditions such as mold and cockroach problems are the more likely cause of the asthma complaints. At the same time, they illustrate the difficulty of pinpointing the precise cause of asthma in inner-city residents.

Experts said that it would be difficult to link the dust released by the explosion to asthma attacks in the area, which often involve a number of factors. Stress, they said, can also be linked to asthma attacks.

“That is a very tall order…to prove that there’s an association especially when something has so many factors,” said Perry Sheffield, an assistant professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem.

The explosion leveled buildings and killed eight people. In the weeks after the blast, “We figured that we’d get some referrals, but I didn’t realize how many we would get,” said Ray Lopez, director of the environmental health and family asthma program for LSA Family Health. The group tapped the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York to help with post-blast health issues.

LSA Family Health representatives visited families referred to its respiratory health program to help clean residents’ apartments for dust and other asthma triggers after the explosion. Mr. Lopez said many of those affected were provided with cleaning supplies, but that many of the families were overwhelmed and hadn’t managed to clean their apartments.

With windows blown out by the blast, dust accumulated in many apartments, Mr. Lopez said. “It seemed like it was up to the families themselves to remove that dust,” Mr. Lopez said.

A spokesman for the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Department said his department and the Department of Environmental Protection performed air-quality testing for a week following the explosion.

He also said the owners of the buildings that were vacated after the explosion and have since been reoccupied have paid to have professional firms to clean public areas and individual units in the properties.

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the Mayor’s Fund provided information to residents on how to access the American Red Cross’s free “Move-in Kits,” which contained liquid cleaning solution, rubber gloves, garbage bags, mops, masks, deodorizers and other cleaning supplies, as well as air purifiers.

The mayor’s spokesman said that residents who have questions about air or dust conditions related to the explosion should call 311. “If dust conditions remain in your home, [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] will inspect those locations and, if necessary, order the building owner to clean,” he said.

Asthma rates in East Harlem are already among the highest in the city. But some experts say that it is difficult to measure whether there was a meaningful uptick in asthma and that the cases more likely are attributable to long-standing environmental issues in the community.

“More than anything else, it’s housing conditions,” said Bill Sothern, a certified industrial hygienist who lives on East 117th Street and Madison. He noted that apartments can have issues such as leaks that cause mold and cockroach infestations.

Sarah Borrero, 58 years old, said she and her 16-year-old daughter suffered from asthma before the explosion, but it grew worse for both of them after the blast leveled houses and sent dust flying in the neighborhood.

She said her daughter has been rushed to the emergency room twice for asthma since the blast and spent two days in intensive care during the first visit.

“I’ve never seen her have this kind of trouble; never in all of these years,” Ms. Borrero said.

The family is now living in the Bronx. Ms. Borrero said that the worsening of her daughter’s asthma symptoms appears to be linked to anxiety from the explosion.

Ms. Borrero said that on the first visit to the hospital, the staff asked if her daughter had been through any stress.

Her reply: “Have you got an hour?”

Write to Laura Kusisto at laura.kusisto@wsj.com

30 Sep

NYNP: Lester New Executive Director

September 30, 2014 – The New York Nonprofit Press published an article on Traci Lester being named the new Executive Director of LSA Family Health Service.

“I am thrilled to join LSA Family Health Service, a pillar in East Harlem. I look forward to working with the staff and Board to meet the needs of families living in and around the community, and to help to move the needle higher in providing holistic, and impactful, services for all people touched by LSA.”
– Traci Lester, LSA’s new Executive Director


10 Jul

New York Times: Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Languages Face Isolation

New York Times journalist Kurt Semple writes about the challenges faced by indigenous language speakers when they immigrate to the US–and how LSA Family Health Service helps these families cope, connect and move forward.

“The power imbalance in their relationship was evident in a recent interview with the couple in the East Harlem headquarters of Little Sisters of the Assumption, where they participate in parenting and childhood development programs. He answered most of the questions posed to them, even those directed specifically at Carmen. “If she goes to the store to buy clothes or whatever, she doesn’t know how to buy,” Juan Manuel said in Spanish. “I always go with her.””
– The New York Times

Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Languages Face Isolation

By Kurt Semple

(July 10, 2014) East Harlem – Laura is a Mexican immigrant who lives in East Harlem, a neighborhood with one of the largest Latino populations in New York City. Yet she understands so little of what others are saying around her that she might just as well be living in Siberia.

Laura, 27, speaks Mixtec, a language indigenous to Mexico. But she knows little Spanish and no English. She is so scared of getting lost on the subway and not being able to find her way home that she tends to spend her days within walking distance of her apartment.

“I feel bad because I can’t communicate with people,” she said, partly in Spanish, partly in Mixtec. “I can’t do anything.”

Laura, who asked that her last name not be revealed because she does not have legal immigration status, is among hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people from Latin America living in the New York region who speak neither the dominant language of the city, English, nor the dominant language of the broader Latino community, Spanish.

These language barriers, combined with widespread illiteracy, have posed significant challenges to their survival, from finding work to gaining access to health care, seeking help from the police and getting legal redress in the courts.

The phenomenon, sometimes called linguistic isolation, affects many immigrant populations to varying degrees. But its prevalence among the fast-growing population of newly arrived immigrants from Latin America, many of working and childbearing age, has made them an increasing concern to local service providers and government agencies.

Partly as a result of this population’s isolation, there are no reliable estimates of its size, experts said.

In recent years, the Mexican Consulate in New York, seeking to learn more about the local indigenous Mexican population, has surveyed the Mexican citizens who seek the consulate’s services. As of the end of 2013, more than 17 percent of respondents spoke an indigenous language, with Mixtec and Nahuatl being the most popular among a total of 16. (Scores of indigenous languages with hundreds of variants are spoken in Mexico alone.)

According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, about 8,700 immigrants from Central America and over the age of 4 in the United States speak an indigenous language and do not speak English very well or at all.

But the Census Bureau’s major surveys do not gauge Spanish proficiency, an equally critical measure for the community of indigenous Latin Americans.

Indeed, for many, not knowing Spanish is as big an impediment as not knowing English. Spanish is the lingua franca among immigrants from Latin America and dominates conversation in neighborhoods like East Harlem; Corona, Queens; and Hunts Point, in the Bronx.

After arriving in New York, most indigenous Latin Americans will learn Spanish before they learn English — if they ever learn English at all. The need has driven demand for Spanish language classes around the city. About a decade ago, the staff at Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, an organization in East Harlem that provides services to the poor, noticed that an increasing number of the students enrolling in its English as a second language classes were not only indigenous language speakers from Latin America but were also illiterate.

Continue reading the main story

Reasoning that it would be easier to teach the newcomers Spanish, which they were beginning to pick up at home and on the street, the organization turned the English classes into Spanish classes.

Beyond the critical language and literacy instruction the classes provided, they also helped the newcomers build “a much-needed social support network,” said Rosemary Siciliano, head of communications for Little Sisters of the Assumption. In 2012, however, the organization had to cut the program because of budget shortfalls.

For those immigrants who have less than a working knowledge of Spanish and English, even basic services can often remain out of reach. While New York City has a progressive language access policy, it guarantees the provision of interpretation and translation services for city business in only the six most-used non-English languages, which do not include any of the indigenous languages spoken by Latin American immigrants.

Sometimes the struggle of these immigrants is simply to get others to recognize that they are somehow different from the Latin Americans who speak Spanish. They are often mistaken for Spanish speakers because of their nationality and appearance and are addressed in Spanish, but may be too shy or confused to interrupt, advocates said.

“They may nod when they don’t know what’s going on,” said Lucia Russett, director of advocacy at Little Sisters of the Assumption.

Several years ago, Juan Carlos Aguirre, executive director of Mano a Mano, a Mexican cultural organization based in New York, received a call from a hospital official in Manhattan. The official was having trouble communicating with a Mexican family. “She said, ‘I need your help,’ ” Mr. Aguirre recalled. “ ‘I think they’re all mentally challenged.’ ”

Mr. Aguirre asked the caller if she had asked the family what language they spoke. “They’re Mexican, so they speak Spanish,” the woman replied matter of factly. It turned out that the family spoke Mixtec.

The isolation, their advocates said, is particularly widespread among women, many of whom stay at home with young children while their husbands go to work on construction sites and in restaurant kitchens, where they can pick up Spanish more quickly.

“Monolingual women can end up completely dependent on their husbands for communication with the outside world,” said Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in New York.

In the seven years she has lived in New York, Carmen, who is from the state of Guerrero in Mexico and speaks Mixtec, has learned a smattering of Spanish. But, she said, beyond running simple errands, she is not able to do much without the help of her husband, Juan Manuel, who learned Spanish from co-workers at a restaurant where he works as a prep cook. Neither attended school in Mexico as children.

The power imbalance in their relationship was evident in a recent interview with the couple in the East Harlem headquarters of Little Sisters of the Assumption, where they participate in parenting and childhood development programs. He answered most of the questions posed to them, even those directed specifically at Carmen. “If she goes to the store to buy clothes or whatever, she doesn’t know how to buy,” Juan Manuel said in Spanish. “I always go with her.”

Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story

Laura, the woman who avoids the subways, arrived in New York in 2010, joining her husband, who had emigrated from Mexico. They had a son, now 2 years old.

But recently, she said, their marriage took a downward turn. Her husband assaulted her, she said, and a neighbor, hearing the noise, called the police. Her husband was imprisoned and is now facing deportation, she said.

His absence has thrown Laura’s linguistic challenges into sharp relief. Insecure about her ability to navigate the city using her rudimentary Spanish, she has relied heavily on her cousin, Catalina, to accompany her to her appointments, including meetings with the prosecutors who are handling her husband’s case. But Catalina, who has a family of her own, is not always available.

Laura, who has not been able to find a job, said she wished it had not come to this. “He’s not a bad person,” she said. She now fears being left entirely alone, with her young son, in New York City.

A version of this article appears in print on July 11, 2014, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Mexican Languages Encounter Isolation.

04 Apr

WPIX: Asthma makes New Yorkers cough up $1.3B annually

LSA was featured in a WPIX report on the costs of asthma for New Yorkers

View on PIX11.com

Asthma makes New Yorkers cough up $1.3B annually

by WPIX Reporter Ayana Harry | WPIX News | April 4, 2014

EAST HARLEM, NEW YORK (PIX11) April 4, 2014 – New York State’s annual asthma bill is $1.3 billion for medical costs and lost productivity, according to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

A report issued by DiNapoli’s office Friday noted that 1.7 million people in New York suffer from the chronic disorder that inflames and narrows the airways of the lungs. For Medicaid recipients, New York’s highest asthma rates are in the Bronx and four upstate counties.

“Children and adults suffering from asthma are at a higher risk of missing work, school, or time with loved ones when instead they have to visit the emergency room,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito said.

The asthma epidemic is also felt in East Harlem, where many residents are surrounded by outdoor asthma triggers, such as air pollution, second-hand smoke and sites including the 126th Street bus depot.

“It’s really frustrating because you don’t know what to do. You don’t have the means to move where the environment is better,” said Melanie Citron, an East Harlem mother whose 3-year-old son has asthma.

For help, Melanie turned to the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service. The nonprofit helps families clear their homes of items that might aggravate asthma symptoms.

Ray Lopez, Director of the Family Asthma Program at LSA, told PIX11 that they’re still seeing thousands of kids in that neighborhood with asthma.

“Maybe they’re not ending up in the hospital like the used to but they still miss a lot of school they still have to use these rescue medications on a daily basis and it’s sort of no escape for some of these parents,” Lopez said.

23 Feb

NY1 Noticias Interviews LSA Regarding IDs and DACA for Immigrants

Lucia Russett, LSA Director of Advocacy, spoke about the importance of DACA and ID’s for NYC residents. One of the things on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda is the creation of municipal ID cards for the city’s undocumented residents, and although no details have been released, immigrant advocates say that there is a program already in practice that could help the effort get going. NY1’s Tara Lynn Wagner filed the following report

(Download text in Spanish / English

(February 23, 2014) Mother of three Victoria Flores used to face obstacles when trying to enter her children’s school.

“In schools, they always ask for ID, and if you don’t have it, you cannot go in because they get suspicious,” Flores said.

Today, Victoria has what officials call a key to the city. She has a consular ID, a document which opens doors that undocumented immigrants otherwise find unwelcoming.

“People did not have photo IDs, so because of that, they were not able to get into schools, they couldn’t open bank accounts,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “Really preventing them from being full participants in the city.”

“This is an important step on the way to getting Municipal IDs – a type of identification that could be accessible to everyone in New York City–similar to what we see in New Haven, Connecticut, where they offer identification for all residents of the city. But until that happens, it’s very important for people to carry with them every day something that includes their photos and essential personal information,” said Lucia Russett, Director of Advocacy at Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service.

“To be able to walk the streets and feel like they have identity is impactful. It’s beyond words,” said Ivan Luevanos, chief of staff for City Councilman Carlos Menchaca.

Immigrants looking to apply for for consular IDs gathered at P.S. 155 in East Harlem Sunday for the New York Immigration Coalition’s 22nd Key to the City initiative, an event that brings together representatives from half a dozen consulates as well as city and community services.

Since 2011, the group has helped distribute nearly 11,000 consular IDs and foreign passports, and they say this is just the beginning.

“With the new administration, it’s an amazing opportunity to build on this initiative and show this is a model by which all of the different folks can come together for something that’s so critically needed for our community,” Choi said.

He’s talking about municipal IDs, an idea supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio and one that Mexican officials say will bring big changes to immigrants from all countries.

“This is going to be a new era for the Mexicans and for the Hispanic people living in New York,” said Mexican Consular Mario Cuevas.

“That will allow them access all city services and continue to imbue them with that power to know that they are a human being and that they can stand in any school, can stand in any library and be treated with same respect that all other New Yorkers deserve,” Luevanos said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio mentioned the municipal ID cards during his recent State of the City address. Although few details are available, Steven Choi of the coalition believes that the consular ids will serve as a perfect stepping stone.

He and other officials gathered Sunday said that they look forward to working with the mayor’s office on developing a proposal and getting it passed.