Johan Caldera and his wife walked from Venezuela to the Texas border this spring, following thousands of others through Darien’s Gap, a 65-mile stretch of mountainous jungle connecting Colombia and Panama, and on through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico.
“It was like a horror movie,” said Caldera, 24, in Spanish, recalling their 3,000-mile odyssey to the U.S. They traveled on foot with a group of 12, including two children and their parents. Once in Texas, they were bused to New York City, joining roughly 20,000 other migrants shipped north in the past three months.
Today, they are living in a Mott Haven shelter and credit the St. Jerome H.A.N.D.S. Community Center on E. 138th Street for helping them get back on their feet. The nonprofit, created by the church and operating from its basement, helped the Calderas start their petition for asylum and begin their hunt for work.
See a video about the community center here.
At the center, which they learned about through word of mouth, the Calderas find food, clothing, English as a Second Language classes and referrals to clinics for needed medical attention. Other programs include citizenship exam preparation, literacy, and nutrition courses.
“Thank God for Miss Luz, who helped us with Metro cards and food, because we had no money at that time,” said Caldera. The couple is now planning to take ESL classes.
Outside the center, long lines of migrants and longtime Bronx residents wait for food and clothing. The increased demand for the center’s services has put it in a dire financial situation because it does not receive federal funding, said Sister Julia Suarez, the executive director.
But despite the tight purse strings, Suarez said she finds her inspiration from a “feeling that God keeps me company and that he likes helping others.”
The center also offers help to fill out applications for food programs such as SNAP and for medical coverage. Besides the weekly food pantry and clothing drives, the center offered mental health workshops during the pandemic.
To assist new arrivals, the center also offers a ten-hour course by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for immigrants looking to work in the construction industry.
“I’m thankful for them and would like to help them back,” said Abdías Providence, 32, speaking in Portuguese. A Haiti native who lived in Brazil for the past eight years, he made the arduous trek north with his wife, Manou Checa Denis, and their 2-year-old daughter.
Providence was able to obtain OSHA certification at the H.A.N.D.S. center and plans to work in construction once his wife can take care of their son, born in the U.S. on Nov. 2.
To provide all these services for almost 200 people, the center relies on 40 volunteers and a staff of six, which includes Suarez and one other full-time employee and four part-time workers.
The Hispanic Federation and Catholic Charities donate food and the Mott Haven Community Partnership provides clothing.
“It’s the one-stop center where people can get support for everything they need,” said Dan Montas, director of the Mott Haven Community Partnership. “They work with everyone.”
Program director Luz Cruz determines the services people need. She manages the main desk helping people fill out benefit forms.
“One is blessed to be in a place where one can [provide] help,” said Cruz, 43. “Families come and they don’t know the system, or come from places with no access to other organizations, or they don’t know their way.”
Before Texas started sending migrants to New York, H.A.N.D.S was in a tough economic spot.
During the pandemic, the center created a Go Fund Me page to cover expenses but fell short of its $50,000 goal. Its financial picture has only worsened since then.
“They’ve done so much for the community, and I hope they get the support from the government so they can continue helping us,” said Brenda Lee, a home health aide waiting in line for her turn at the food pantry.