“Who’s the most important person in the room?” Bronx native Lorean Valentin asks a group of eight women in their early 20s.
“I am,” they respond in unison.
They are part of a two-week healthcare training program at the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center on the Upper East Side, where they receive several certifications and ultimately get placed in paid internships in hospitals and medical centers across New York City.
It’s their graduation day, and each of the young women is awarded a medal that reads, Whatever It Takes, reflecting their tenacious personalities and new impetus to self-sufficiency.
It’s a motto that perfectly defines Valentin, a Nuyorican dynamo who serves as director of career development and advancement for healthcare and human services at the neighborhood center.
“Before I came here, I really felt like I needed some direction,” says Tameara Hanson, a trainee. “Ms. Ludi, she really helps with that. Not just with direction, but with my personal mental health, she always does the affirmations. It helps me feel better and that I’m a part of something bigger.”
Born and raised in the Bronx and a current Mott Haven resident, friends and family call her Ludi.
At 13 years old, she began community work with Mutual Aid NYC at the Mercy Center while attending junior high school. There she helped feed the homeless and assisted with turkey drives, and she continues to be heavily involved in her community today.
Valentin says that her need to help others is inherent in her family, it’s part of la cultura. She recalls the devastation of hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico. Although only five years old at the time, her memories of hunger and pain are vivid. Her younger sister had scarlet fever and the family was surviving on rations.
“We were very lucky to have water and to have tunafish . . . we lived in the house with my great-uncle, my great-aunt and my two great grandparents, I now know that they sacrificed eating so that my sister and I could have food and I was still hungry . . . That experience absolutely impacted my life.”
In Summer 2020, Valentin began her work at the Rainbow Garden of Life and Health in Melrose, as well as at El Coqui Liberation Community Garden just a few blocks away. When the rest of the world was at a standstill, Valentin was determined to find some way to give back.
“All we can do is wear a mask? Is that all we can do? And wash our hands?” she says. “What are we going to do? I just know how to help people.”
Her uncle, Maximino Rivera, had been volunteering at the Rainbow Garden for three years when Valentin joined. Rivera ran for the Assembly seat representing Bronx district 84 in 2012 on a campaign for fair elections, and he has been a community activist for over 30 years. He points to the energy Valentin brought to her work.
“When COVID came . . . Greenthumb asked us to close, we said, ‘We’re not going to close, we’re going to plant.’ Ludi came, she took over and she started, I don’t know how she did it, she got 20 bodies, young volunteers.”
But while Valentin was pouring her vast energies into helping others, she was also risking her life.
Six years earlier, at the age of 30, Valentin was diagnosed with endometriosis, which made her especially vulnerable to the dangers of COVID. Some days were better than others, and some were catastrophic. “It literally feels like there’s barbed wire inside you,” she says.
Two years into COVID, she recognizes when she needs to prioritize self-care and practice what she preaches — If you don’t take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of anyone else?
It’s a dreary Sunday afternoon on March 6 as Valentin joins concerned residents at a protest in Port Morris by the water’s edge. Bronxites have been fighting for decades to have the New York Power Authority’s “peaker plants” demolished. The plants, which spew pollution when cranked up during periods of peak energy usage in the city, stood forebodingly in the background.
Valentin is speaking with Daniel Chervoni, head gardener and beekeeper at Friends of Brook Park. He is wearing a prop oxygen mask attached to a tank that reads: “Boycott Fresh Direct.” Chervoni says of Valentin, “You have people that they complain, and they move out of the community. Then you have the people that complain, stay and do something about it.”
Rainbow Garden of Life and Health, located at 757 Melrose Ave., will be accepting new members at their grand opening of the season on Saturday April 2 from 10am-3pm. Refreshments will be served.