Our People, Our Neighborhood
Through our core programs and a full complement of support services,
Mercy Center actively addresses 3 critical problems facing people who
live in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx:
unemployment and economic poverty,
violent and oppressive behaviors in families
and the community, and
the powerlessness and estrangement that
accompanies the isolation
of the immigrant
THE CYCLE OF POVERTY
Mercy Center serves the residents of Mott
Haven in the South Bronx, home to one of the poorest Congressional
Districts (16th) in the United States.
Sixty-percent of participant families live
on annual household incomes
of less than $15,000 and close to 80% live on incomes below the
Seventy-percent receive some form of
government assistance (Food
Supplemental Security Income,
Housing, Medicaid, etc.).
They represent more than 30 countries and
speak 25 languages and
Most are Hispanic (82%) and African-American
(6%) families, with
almost three-quarters having emigrated from Mexico, the Dominican
Republic or Puerto Rico. Smaller percentages come from Ecuador,
Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Columbia.
A quarter of participants have never
attended high school and more
than half have not graduated, often because of the responsibility of
caring for young children.
Literacy levels vary, and work histories,
when present, are largely in
low-paying service industries.
OPPRESSIVE BEHAVIORS IN FAMILIES AND THE COMMUNITY
Domestic violence (also known as intimate
partner violence) can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race,
ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, education or other factors. Last
year in New York City, one in six homicide victims was a women, and 68%
of those murders were incidents of domestic violence. (Source: Safe
One in 4 women will experience domestic
violence during her lifetime.
Women are more likely to be killed by an
intimate partner than men.
Every year, 1 in 3 women who is a victim of
homicide is murdered by
her current or former partner.
Every year, more than 3 million children
witness domestic violence
in their homes.
Children who live in homes where there is
domestic violence also
suffer abuse or neglect at high rates (30% to 60%).
A 2005 study found that children exposed to
domestic violence are
more likely to have health problems, becoming sick more often, having
frequent headaches or stomachaches, and acting more tired or lethargic.
A 2003 study found that children are likely
to intervene when they
witness severe violence against a parent – which can place a child
at great risk for injury or even death.
More than 60% of domestic violence incidents happen at home, often
keeping the problem hidden.
In New York City, 25% of homeless heads of household became homeless as
a result of domestic violence.
OVERBURDENED PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Mercy Center falls within the
boundaries of New York City School District 7, home to some of the
lowest performing schools in the nation. The 2012/13 New York City
performance on the State assessments in English and Math revealed that
only 9% of 3rd through 8th graders in District 7
met or exceeded the proficiency standard in English language arts; 58%
tested below basic standards. On the Math exam, only 9% of 3rd
through 8th graders passed; and 59% tested below basic
standards. Test results also reveal that gaps in achievement between
black and Hispanic students and their counterparts persist. In Math,
only 15% of black students and 19% of Hispanic students passed the exam,
compared with 50% of white students and 61% of Asian students. On the
English exam, only 3% of non-native speakers were deemed proficient and
only 6% of students with disabilities passed.
THE POWERLESSNESS AND ESTRANGEMENT OF THE
Immigrants come to New York with little
or no English and few prospects for employment. Roughly 70% of Mott
Haven residents speak a language other than English and many face the
challenges intrinsic to the immigrant experience, including poverty,
poor literacy skills, inadequate documentation, unfamiliar surroundings
and traditions, and the trials of raising children in a foreign country.
In 2008, 59% of participants served were born outside the United States;
in 2014 that number increased to 74%.
A recent report by Advocates for Children of New York, "Our Children,
Our Schools", noted that 80% of immigrant parents surveyed indicated
they wish to be more involved in their children’s schools, but are often
under-utilized as resources. The authors interviewed parents who
identified barriers such as being stopped at the door for not having
identification, intimidated by staff that were insensitive or
unresponsive to their needs, and treated badly because of their
background or limited English. Small gains for Spanish-speaking parents
were reported, but those who spoke other languages said they could not
get answers to the most basic questions about their children’s academic
work. They indicated that language, lack of information, and cultural
differences prevented them from participating in PTA and other
leadership opportunities. Many said that staff reached out or responded
to them only when there were problems with their children.
Mercy Center is truly a place of hope in the
midst of a challenging environment.
And Some of Our
Participants' Stories of Empowerment:
Alma first came to Mercy Center in January 2011.
She initially attended the evening ESOL class, but transferred to the
daytime class so she could be home when her two daughters arrive from
school. Alma is very inquisitive when it comes to learning English. Her mind
is like a sponge; always soaking up information and grasping for more and
she is a joy to have in the classroom. She participates fully and is always
encouraging other students to do the same.
Alma is a very active
participant of Mercy Center. Aside from her involvement in ESOL, she has
participated in Parenting classes, the Family Development
program, Keyboarding and Microsoft Word classes in English,
and more. After brushing up on her own skills, she agreed to help teach an
introductory computer skills course to Spanish speakers.
Alma embodies what
Mercy Center’s mission is all about, which is to empower women and their
families. In January 2012, Alma was in Level 2; in September 2012 she
advanced to level 3, which she completed in June 2014. She continues to stay
involved and to look for ways to keep growing and to help other participants
achieve some of their goals.
The Vazquez Family
A family worker remembers
the Vazquez family, a family of four, as "shy and reserved" when they
first came to Mercy Center. Their most prominent obstacle at the time
was fear. Fear of getting involved in the community because of gang
violence and racism; the family lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t
welcoming to the Mexican population.
Two years ago, while Mrs. Vazquez was taking ESOL classes at Mercy
Center, the opportunity to join Family Development was announced and she
persuaded her husband to sign up. After being in the program a few
months and attending a variety of classes and family functions, the
father came to realize that quality time was much more than simply
staying at home together or attending church. He began to witness his
family blossom, both individually and as a unit. As a result of their
participation, they became increasingly integrated into the local
community, grew their circle of friends, and took advantage of several
• The mother attended a series of workshops
organized by Mercy Center and facilitated by Qualitas for Life
Foundation that resulted in her obtaining a New York City vending
license and green cart. She now operates her own business selling fruits
and vegetables in the neighborhood.
• The son used to teach himself how to play
piano on a toy keyboard by watching how-to videos on YouTube. One of the
goals established by the family was to help their son obtain more
structured, professional music instruction. With the help of their
Family Worker and a Mercy Center volunteer, their son obtained a full
scholarship to receive piano lessons at the Diller-Quaile School of
Music in Manhattan.
• The Family Worker also worked with the mother
to research charter schools, helping her understand the mission of
charters as well as the application process. As a result, both children
were accepted to charter schools: the daughter in Kipp Academy Middle
School, and the son in Mott Hall High School.
Today, the Vazquez family is still involved with Mercy Center through
ESOL classes, Summer Camps and Fiver Sleepaway Camp for the children.
What began as one women’s personal desire to improve her English turned
out to be a two-year transformative journey for herself and her family
as they came together to set and achieve goals, expand their horizons
and improve their lives.