Expecting Queens Mothers Can Now Apply For Unconditional Cash

A family shelter in Brooklyn on Mother’s Day. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

By Iryna Shkurhanishkurhan@queensledger.com 

A philanthropic program that gives unconditional cash to expectant mothers for the first 1,000 days of their child’s life is expanding into Queens. 

The Bridge Project, birthed in June 2021 through the Monarch Foundation, is the first to launch a direct cash allowance program in New York. After an impactful first phase in the Bronx, the program will pivot from pilot status and continue to serve new mothers in all five boroughs, while remaining a research study. 

“It’s the first time that we’re actually opening applications in a borough and then leaving them open,” Megha Agarwal, the Executive Director of The Bridge Project, told the Queens Ledger. “The goal behind this is so that every mother who’s currently pregnant, and potentially could be eligible over the course of their pregnancy to join the Bridge Project, has the opportunity to do so.”

The initiative seeks to eliminate child poverty with a focus on the first three years of a baby’s life, which research shows is the most consequential period for a successful childhood and adulthood. Mothers can spend the cash how they see fit, unlike welfare programs with complicated requirements and restrictions. 

Following the birth, participants will receive $1,000 in cash a month for the first 15 months. And for the last 21 months, they will receive $500 a month, all in biweekly installments. The drawdown creates a recognition that the program will eventually end, and tries to help mothers adjust to that loss of a safety net slowly. 

To qualify, expecting mothers must live in Astoria, Corona, Elmhurst, Flushing, Jackson Heights or Jamaica and have an annual household income of under $52,000. In this third phase, women will also need to be pregnant for the first time, at 23 weeks or less.

The rollout into Queens on July 10 brought specific changes to the payments from past phases. An upfront prenatal allowance of $1,500 was introduced to cover the costs of preparing for the baby such as purchasing a crib, and stocking up on diapers and formula. 

“We just find that cash is the most effective tool to help support children and babies in their earliest years,” said Agarwal, who pointed out that oftentimes, mothers will spend the initial payments catching up on rent or paying off debt. “It’s not until a little bit later into the program, do folks actually feel that they can use the money towards their child. So the prenatal allowance really allows them to do that.”

Aggregate data collected from the first six months of the program showed that 46 percent of spending was taken out as cash, likely for rent and other living expenses. Mothers also spent 18 percent on food and 19 percent went to merchandise. 

The rate of respondents reporting that they have more than $500 in savings went up by 242 percent, and 13 percent more said that they can now pay for a $400 emergency. 

The organization says they focus on “upstream solutions” to address the root issues of inequality instead of attempting to solve its aftereffects. They also want to “eliminate the deeply paternalistic approach the U.S. takes to poverty” with their focus on mothers, regardless of relationship status.

Nearly one in five children in New York experienced poverty in 2021, with them more likely to experience poverty than in 32 other states. In the city, nearly close to one in four children under three live in poverty, disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx youth.

The already high cost associated with having a child is also continuing to climb. According to a report released by Annie. E. Casey Foundation, child care costs have increased by 220% since 1990 with infant care being the most expensive.  

With reliable research remaining a core purpose of the project, a control group is selected to not receive the funds. The initial application acts like a baseline survey. And every six to nine months, participants respond to quantitative surveys and can also be asked to participate in interviews and focus groups, all of which participants are additionally compensated for. 

The concept of universal basic income is not new, and goes back to the 18th century. But widespread unemployment and financial hardships during the pandemic brought new attention to the idea of providing unconditional and periodic cash, especially as a poverty reduction tool. While some see UBI as a radical concept, recent studies indicate that it is successful at lifting people out of poverty and facilitating a better quality of life. 

An MIT research study conducted in Kenya found that UBI decreased food insecurity and improved physical and mental health. But when conditions outlined that the money could only be spent on food, subjective well being was reduced. 

And city officials are taking note. At the State of the City address on March 8, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams expressed support for no strings attached income for communities in need, especially women. 

“Women are the cornerstone of society and the backbones of our families. When women are healthy and have access to opportunity, our children, families and communities thrive,” said Adams in her speech. “We will work with organizations like the Bridge Project, Children’s Defense Fund, and Chapin Hall to support programs that provide monthly financial assistance payments to vulnerable young people and low-income mothers with infants. These efforts have shown great promise in helping people out of poverty and into stability.”

On June 23, the city council enacted a bill that will establish and fund pilot programs to provide unconditional cash for low-income individuals. Research would remain a core aspect, and the funds received would be exempt from being considered income for existing public aid programs. 

“The power of our intervention is that it’s unconditional, and then it’s additionally flexible,” said Agarwal. “That’s completely different than the benefit system that we have in place today in our safety net. And it makes it really challenging and difficult, because it provides a lot of assumptions in terms of what people need at a certain point in time.” 

The federal Child Tax Credit, which brought financial relief to families during the pandemic, expired at the end of 2021. According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, child poverty rose by 41 percent the following month. The initiative was able to help families meet their basic needs and no negative effects on parental employment were found. 

Agarwal says that the success of the federal program reinforced their own findings about the power of direct cash assistance for those with children. Its disappearance also reinforced their commitment to change policy nationwide.

With SNAP benefits, the monthly payment which averages $121 cannot be used for hot food at the point of sale, hygiene products, medicine and cleaning supplies. The income eligibility for WIC in NYC is also significantly less than the requirement for the Bridge Project, which excludes many low-income mothers. 

“Both the flexibility and the conditionality of the funds is really meant to allow people to take the autonomy and have self determination over what it is that they need, what their family needs and what their baby needs,” said Agarwal. “You know, your life much better than I do, so you should be able to make your own decisions the same way that I’m able to, in order to best serve yourself. It ends up being counterproductive if you place restrictions on top of people’s ability to make their own decisions.”

As of now, all their funding comes from private philanthropy which is made up of high net-worth individuals and private foundations. But with the possible infusion of government funding from NYC, the program can be sustained with both to reach even more mothers. 

“What we’re trying to do here is provide some sort of model for child allowance across the United States,” said Agarwal. “We think this is an effective policy and could be a solution for our nation moving forward.”

Cornell and Salvation Army Join Forces to Bring Nutrition to Families 

Bilqis Benu, a children services specialist at the Springfield Gardens Family Center, says the garden exceeded her expectations.

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

For the first time ever, the Salvation Army partnered with Cornell and Cornell University Cooperative Extension- New York City (CUCE-NYC) to sprout healthy eating through gardening and nutrition education at a family shelter in Jamaica. 

Over the course of eight weeks, families living at the Springfield Family Center met up every Thursday for various cooking classes, lessons on food safety and even a practical lesson on shopping for healthy food on a budget. Parents and their children, as young as four years old, even helped start and maintain the site’s first produce garden from scratch. 

On June 21, residents and facilitators of the program celebrated its culmination with a catered meal and certificates of appreciation to those who participated and facilitated the program. 

: Program participants and CUCE-NYC nutrition educators celebrated the end of the program with a catered meal.

“The concept was a little garden, so people could feel connected, could still put their hands in some soil and still feel grounded. They could see things grow,” said Bilqis Benu, a children services specialist at the center. 

“And then it blew up,” said Benu in describing how the final result exceeded her initial expectations of the garden. She attributes it to Cornell University, and its various departments  getting involved in the program to be more of service to the community. 

While the program sought to positively impact the lives of participants, data collection conducted by researchers from Cornell was also a crucial element to determine if the program is worth replicating at other shelters in the state and beyond. Paid surveys were distributed to participants at the beginning and end of the program. 

“Because everyone here has children, and generally people are concerned about the health of their children, they have the motivation to change their eating habits in their family for the sake of their children,” said Dr. Zeynab Jouzi, a postdoctoral researcher at Action Research Collaborative at Cornell University, who conducted the surveys.  

After fostering a connection with the residents to build trust, Dr. Jouzi conducted interviews to gauge what kind of services would be beneficial to help residents transition to permanent housing. She received a range of responses from many first time parents who were living in the center’s transitional housing, with one family per room with a small kitchenette to cook.   

Dr. Jouzi’s research focuses on food security and environmental justice with a “leave no one behind” goal.

“My goal in my research is to leave no one behind,” said Dr. Jouzi, whose research focuses on food security and environmental justice. “Generally, vulnerability and being marginalized is going to be a bundle of problems. Many people that are home insecure are also food insecure.”

Kwesi Joseph, an Urban Gardens Specialist at Cornell, said that taking a soil sample at the site was the first step in determining if a garden was possible. He was surprised when a heavy metal test came up negative, a rarity in the city but a clear message that it was safe to grow food. But at that point, they didn’t have enough funds to carry out the program. 

Joseph works to start and advance community gardens across the city in his role as an urban gardens specialist at Cornell.

Joseph confided in Dr. Tashara Leak, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell, about the financial dilemma. That’s when she offered up the help of undergraduate students in her program to apply for grants which would secure money for the garden. The second grant was secured by Benu, who applied on her own. 

About half of participants primarily speak Spanish, but the organizers had Spanish speaking educators who simply split up the two groups to provide the same quality of nutrition education. During the educational lessons, children and their parents were also split up for different lessons and experiences.  

Derick Edwards, 42, was the only father to participate in the program with his two kids – a nine year old son and an eight year old daughter. Their family has been living in the shelter since last November, and Edwards is in the process of searching for permanent housing.

Derick Edwards was the only father to participate in the program, among a fourteen mothers.

“I noticed that I’m reading the labels more,” said Edwards on the impact of the program. “It might take me a little bit longer to shop, but it’s something that ‘s interesting to me now.”

But despite learning how to save money at the grocery store, a lack of resources combined with a rising cost of groceries, especially healthy produce makes it difficult to implement. 

“It’s always been cheaper to go unhealthy. It’s not even like a couple of cents, it’s astronomically more expensive to eat healthy,” he said. “But there are some small ways where you can save money.”

For some parents, the program had an impact on both their eating habits and those of their children. 

“So I started doing collard greens but with them. I started doing brussel sprouts, peas, more broccoli, and carrots. Before this, it was just green beans,” said Khadijah Da Don, a mother who resides in the shelter with her three-year-old son. “And now that I learned how to cook certain vegetables, he eats them with no problem.”

“A healthy lifestyle is an expensive lifestyle, but at least you get to live a little bit longer,” said Khadijah who says that SNAP benefits are not enough to cover the cost of healthy groceries, so she has to supplement it with her own money.

The children of the participants got their hands dirty in the garden on site.

“We can’t actually leave, so I feel like the program was like a little escape that we could look forward to, enjoy ourselves, have fun and learn different things,” said Don, who has been living at the center for almost a year with her son, after living in the Bronx her whole life. 

While the researchers have not published their official findings yet, since the program will enter a second phase with new participants, some parents expressed gratitude to the nutrition education. 

“Changing my meal plan is definitely a plus. So I thank them for that too. Because I didn’t know I like other types of food until now. They made me try something new,” said Don. “And then I ended up liking it.”

Psychiatric Nurses Balance Their Own Mental Health

Hendricks travels all across the borough to “bring the hospital” to her patient’s homes. Photo Credit: VNS Health

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com 

Referred to by many as the backbone of healthcare, nurses are indispensable to the public health system and the wellness of patients. 

Those who work in the mental health field face a different set of challenges than general practice nurses who work primarily with patients experiencing physical ailments. For National Nurses Month in May, the Queens Ledger spoke to two nurses working in the mental health field outside of a hospital setting. 

Hycolyn Chamberlain is a Registered Nurse (RN) in the PROS Program at Transitional Services for New York (TSINY). The clients she works with have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or severe depression and are now in the process of recovery and rehabilitation. 

In 2021, there were 14.1 million adults in the U.S living with a SMI, approximately 5.5 percent, but only 9.1 million received mental health treatment in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Sometimes what clients would say to you, as a nurse, they will not say to their psychiatrist, and they will not say to their social worker,” said Chamberlain. “So there’s this trust that they have with wanting to share what’s really going on with them and ask for ideas as to how they can live a better life.”

Clients in the outpatient PROS program are in stable condition and are learning how to carry on with their lives despite their diagnosis. The program assists them with overcoming barriers to education, housing, employment and socialization through daily, or weekly, visits to the Jamaica location.  

Recently the mental health field received funding from both city and state officials in New York following an increased awareness of the distress that people from all walks of life are facing, especially after the pandemic. 

In February, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a $1 billion investment in improving mental health treatment across the state. The plan included increasing the capacity of both inpatient and outpatient psychiatric facilities, while also expanding insurance coverage and creating additional units of supportive housing. 

The following month, Mayor Eric Adams announced a similar mental health initiative to invest $20 million to address the overdose crisis and specifically help people living with a serious mental illness. 

“Mental health is my passion. I really do enjoy doing what I do,” said Chamberlain, who works with people who are currently on medication for a SMI. 

On a given day she meets with 15-20 clients to administer medication, takes health assessments and runs labs. Once a week she also leads a medication group with a dozen clients where she talks about the dangers of mixing prescriptions with illicit substances and creates a space where patients can discuss the pros and cons of the medications that they are on. She reinforces the importance of taking medication consistently and what available treatment options are available.

“It’s not a cookie cutter situation, you have to treat all the clients as an individual. Mental illness is not the end of the road, there’s life beyond the diagnosis. It’s just a diagnosis,” said Chamberlain. “The clients can live fulfilling lives just like everybody else, with the proper support.”

Chamberlain immigrated from Jamaica 12 years ago and has resided in the St. Albans area since. For a period of time, she could not practice in the field while she waited to be certified. But in 2015 she passed the NCLEX exam, a national licensing exam to become an RN, and began her nursing career in the United States. 

After previously working at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, she knew that she wanted to work in the mental health field. She prefers her position now at TSINY due to the work-life balance it allows her, especially in a field that she says can be mentally draining at times. 

She finds that the traditional 9-5 work day model helps her create a work-life balance and find time for self care activities that benefit her own mental health such as reading, working out and listening to music. 

“They really look forward to seeing you every day,” said Chamberlain, acknowledging that her favorite part of the role is feeling appreciated by the clients. 

Collette Hendricks, a behavioral health nurse for VNS Health, also acknowledged that her favorite part of her job is receiving appreciation from her clients. 

“What I liked the most about it is building a relationship with them, and their families, in their own environment,” said Hendricks, who travels all across Queens to meet clients in their own home. “We kind of bring the hospital to them. They may not be able to get to a hospital, or they may not want to go to a hospital.”

On a typical day she will drive across Queens to see four to six clients in their homes anywhere from Far Rockaway to Astoria to Elmhurst. 

VNS Health is a nonprofit home and community-based health care organization that offers services such as home care, hospice care, behavioral health, caregiver support and community outreach. 

Hendricks is on the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which is made up of psychiatrists, social workers, substance abuse specialists, family specialists and both registered nurses and nurse practitioners. To get placed on an ACT team, you have had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility at least six times in the past known as “rapid cycling” in the mental health field. 

“So I’ve never really felt any negative results against being a nurse, if anything, it’s always been very positive,” said Hendricks who acknowledged that it doesn’t have to be Nurses Month for her to feel appreciated in the field. “My reward is seeing them at the hands like you know, getting a job, going to school or just not having any hospitalizations for a long time.”

“I’ve gone through a lot of loss with family and I think that directed me into that way of healing, ” said Hendricks who is currently completing a masters in mental health and wellness with an emphasis on grieving and loss. “I found ways to cope and process my way through it. And I just feel like a lot of people do not know how to process that.”

In the future she hopes to open up her own mental health and wellness center that will offer support for those managing grief through coping skill classes. Through her own experiences, she has learned to see grief as a process that can ultimately be rewarding on the other side.

“I definitely rely on anything that I learned on my journey and I’m grateful for all the wisdom that it has taught me. It really does assist me in my everyday job and in my everyday life.”

Queens Home To Two New DOT Initiatives: Street Seats in Jamaica & Protected Bike Lanes on Queens Blvd.

Street Seats Installed on Jamaica Ave. and New Protected Bike Lanes on Queens Blvd.

By Alicia Venter


The new Street Seats on Jamaica Ave. Photo: DOT

Cycling and public safety initiatives by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) are being expanded into Elmhurst and Jamaica, the department announced on Wednesday, March 10.

In Jamaica, a new location of the Streets Seats program has been installed on Jamaica Avenue. between 160th Street and Union Hall Street. Approximately 4,500 square feet of pedestrian space has been added to the location, the DOT stated, and it includes planters, granite blocks, tables and chairs.

The Street Seats program has been implemented across the city. Partners apply to the initiative, and the DOT will attempt to reinvent the roadbed along the curb line or on wide sidewalks with seating. The partner selects the design and maintains the Street Seat. The crossing between Jamaica Avenue and Union Hall Street. was shortened as well.

The Downtown Jamaica Business Improvement District (BID) will be the partner managing the newest Street Seats.

“The newly expanded pedestrian space on Jamaica Avenue (between 160th St. and Union Hall St.) has been enhanced with planters, tables and chairs for use by our community. Thanks to the NYC Department of Transportation, we have a new, open space in our district,” the Downtown Jamaica BID shared in a statement to the Leader-Observer. “The pedestrian plaza will be programmed with activities and attractions over the next several months, in partnership with other community stakeholders, and we look forward to bringing attention and energy to the community, to benefit Jamaica’s businesses, its visitors, shoppers and residents.”

Across New York City, public spaces are being renovated to reflect the commitment made by Mayor Eric Adams in his 2023 State of the City, where he outlined a plan to invest $375 million to public spaces across the city.

“A crucial element to any thriving downtown is attractive and inviting public spaces. They help beautify, soften the streetscape, and provide a relaxing spot for shoppers and visitors, as well as people who work in the area,” said Justin Rodgers, president & CEO, Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, in a statement to the Leader-Observer. “Enhancements like this along with efforts of the newly formed Downtown Jamaica BID will elevate the pedestrian experience in the heart of the shopping corridor.”

Along Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, the DOT has begun the process of hardening the protected bike lane with Jersey Barriers, which are used to separate lanes of traffic.

From 72nd Street to Grand Avenue — a 0.75 mile stretch — these Jersey Barriers will delineate the bike lanes from the traffic-heavy street in an attempt to make bike lanes safer.

In 2022, 3.7 miles of bike lane hardening was implemented on Queens Boulevard. This year, the DOT has committed to hardening 10 miles of existing lanes and five miles of new projects with sturdier barriers, they said in a press release.

Queens is the world’s borough, and delivering high-quality pedestrian spaces and safe cycling infrastructure are some of the ways Mayor Adams and New York City DOT are reimagining the use of public space,” said NYC DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez in a press release. “I thank the hard-working teams at DOT and our community partners for their efforts in beautifying Jamaica Avenue and giving cyclists the protection they deserve on Queens Boulevard.”

State’s First Woman-Owned Marijuana Dispensary Opens in Jamaica

Customers chose from a variety of strains all grown locally by New York’s farmers.

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

With a line of eager customers stretched around the block, the first legal adult-use cannabis dispensary in Queens opened its doors on Thursday afternoon. 

Good Grades, located on the corner of Jamaica Ave and 162 St., is a woman-owned recreational marijuana business — the first of its kind in the state and city. The owners were selected as some of the first applicants to receive a retail license in an attempt to counter the detrimental effects of cannabis prohibition that their family experienced firsthand. 

This marks a new beginning for co-owners, Extasy James and her cousin Michael James, Jr., a Jamaica, Queens native. Extasy’s father was deported to Jamaica when she was three- years-old following a cannabis-related criminal conviction. Being the eldest daughter of four children, she says that the responsibility of carrying her family forward fell on her shoulders. 

“I think the city is giving families a second chance and as African Americans, we’ve been targeted the most,” said Extasy, who was born and raised in the Bronx, during the grand opening. 

The store will remain open for 30 days as a “pop-up” shop and then close for final construction. The location will reopen permanently by the end of the year. In the meantime, various strains of flower, prerolls and edibles are available for purchase. 

“This new endeavor is a significant milestone for our family, hometown and women in New York,” said James, Jr. who is also an attorney that works with minority small business owners. 

A Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) license is designated for business owners that were implicated, or had a close family member impacted, by the long-standing criminalization of cannabis. By giving justice-involved owners priority in receiving the first retail licenses, the state hopes to build an equitable foundation for its novel legal marijuana industry. 

“​​I think this has been a long time coming for Queens,” said John Panella, 73, who has been smoking marijuana since he was 16-years old. He was one of the first customers on line, arriving an hour before the store opened. “They seem to be opening up cannabis places in New York City at a snail’s pace.”

Several waiting customers expressed that obtaining weed in the city prior to legalization was never difficult. But without governmental regulation, customers worried about the source of the plant and whether harmful chemicals, pesticides, or even fentanyl were in the mix. 

Ming Gaffney, a 33-year old Hollis resident, said that she doesn’t mind paying a higher price for products if it brings her peace of mind knowing where they came from. She was also proud to support a woman owned business. 

“With the opening of Good Grades in Queens, we’re continuing to build on our progress to create a safe, regulated cannabis industry in New York,” said Governor Kathy Hochul.

All legal dispensaries in the state will only sell products that are cultivated by New York’s farmers within the state. Flowerhouse, cultivated in upstate Walden, NY, is one company whose flower products are sold at Good Grades.  

Since legalization hit the state, a wave of smoke shops that also sell cannabis products without a license have popped up across the city. At the end of January, the Sheriff’s office raided three smoke shops in Queens, two in Whitestone, and confiscated millions of dollars in products. 

In neighboring Richmond Hill, a 20-year-old employee at Plug Smoke Shop was shot and killed during a daytime robbery last month. The store was open for less than a year.

Extasy declined to comment on the unlicensed sale of marijuana in neighboring smoke shops. Instead, she wanted to focus on how the legalized route can serve as an inspiration for the community.

“I want everybody to know that you can have a second chance, if your family or anybody else was wrongly convicted or jailed, you can reunite your family and you can make something of yourself,” she said.


Community is Therapy at Venture House

Members Sarah, Dave, Richard and Janet outside of the clubhouse.

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

Venture House stands unassuming on Hillside Ave in Jamaica, Queens with its yellow brick exterior and arched windows. 

To a passerby, there’s not enough to guess that a vibrant community, known as a clubhouse, dedicated to helping people with serious mental illness (SMI) find their place in society exists on the other side of the lofty teal door. 

Unlike other mental health service providers structured around a hierarchical model that puts psychiatrists at the top and patients all the way on the bottom, Venture House aims to give its members autonomy without skimping on support and resources. Members are heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the clubhouse, while also countering the isolation that can come with their diagnosis through friendship.

“We are not in the business of turning people away,” said David Plotka, the Program Director at the Queens location. Anyone over the age of eighteen diagnosed with a SMI — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression — living in the five boroughs is welcome to become a member for life. 

Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a mental health agenda that plans to invest $20 million in the expansion of mental health services such as overdose prevention and serious mental illness support. One key proponent of his plan is to expand clubhouse capacity across five boroughs. Currently there are 14 locations across the city and four in Queens. Venture House also has a second location in Staten Island.

The clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation first sprouted in 1943 by a group of New Yorkers who were discharged from a psychiatric facility but wanted to sustain the mutual support they found in each other. In 1948, the first clubhouse, Fountain House, was opened in Manhattan and is still supporting members today. There are 320 clubhouses around the world in 30 countries that are accredited by Clubhouse International. 

One study found that eighty percent of people with mental illness are unemployed, despite around sixty percent wanting to work, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Employment rates also decrease with an increase in the severity of the mental illness. 

Since day one, Venture House’s employment strategy has focused on transitional employment — a part-time temporary work placement that lasts approximately six to nine months. For those with a checkered employment history or blank resume due to their psychiatric history, completing a temporary placement evokes a sense of accomplishment, without the pressure of holding it down forever. 

“It’s a little bit of a reframe, if you will. It’s not that you left a job, or maybe you couldn’t sustain the job after a year or nine months, it’s more like, congratulations, you finished the placement and that’s reason to celebrate,” said Plotka. “We want people to feel a sense of success and then maybe they’re looking for more permanent employment.”

Members attended a work readiness group where they discussed how to deal with issues that arise in the workplace.

Members are currently employed at UBS Arena, Citi Field, West End Tennis Club at Forest Hills, and Turn the Page bookstore in Bayside, among others. Earlier this month, Venture House also partnered with RDS, a courier service based in Long Island City, for more transitional employment positions for their members. 

“I had extensive work history and education. However, when you have a gap of ten years, it’s intimidating, and it’s embarrassing, there’s a lot of shame,” said Janet Perisa. “And Venture has helped me to not be ashamed.”

Natellie Philip, a St. Albans resident, and clubhouse member since 2015 completed a six month placement at Turn the Page bookstore in Bayside. Through a scholarship she learned about at the clubhouse, she also became certified as a Clinical Medical Assistant following a 6-month course at York College. 

But before members pursue employment in the real world, they are encouraged to participate in the clubhouse’s work-ordered day, which runs parallel to typical nine to five working hours. Members can choose to prepare lunch in the kitchen or answer phones at the front desk. Some give visitors tours of the facility and process intake data while others ensure its cleanliness. 

A healthy daily lunch is available for just a dollar. And at the member run coffee shop on the first floor, a cup of coffee goes for an affordable 35 cents. 

Staff at Venture House describe the clubhouse as “purposely understaffed” as part of the clubhouse model. While daily attendance averages at 80 members, there are only 18 paid staff members, many of whom are visually indistinguishable from members. This is part of the effort to make carrying out clubhouse responsibilities impossible without member involvement. 

“You’re hearing voices. That’s okay. We don’t care. You can slice a tomato. We’re making a salad,” said Juliet Douglas, Venture House CEO for the past six years.

Douglas, who has thirty years of experience in almost every corner of the mental health field, says that the freedom and lack of structure at Venture House can be startling for some newcomers. If individuals have a history of being institutionalized at psychiatric facilities, where restrictive structures are in place, it can be startling to be asked, “What do you want to do?” 

The International Standards for Clubhouse Programs states that “There are no agreements, contracts, schedules, or rules intended to enforce participation of members.”

“People can come just to socialize, because socialization in itself is a goal. So no one is forced to do anything, but we try to help them to understand that we need them to participate,” said Douglas.

Growing up in Flushing, Janet Perisa, 44, first began displaying signs of serious mental illness at age ten. After struggling to attend school regularly like her peers and running away from home, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for two months at 15 years old. 

Despite her struggles, she was able to obtain her GED and start attending CUNY City Tech to study fashion marketing at 22. Perisa thrived while pursuing her passion and is proud to say she made it on the Dean’s list. She went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at The New School, where she wrote the fashion column for her school’s paper, all while holding down several jobs.

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Perisa says her dreams crashed alongside the stock market. Like many others who graduated into the recession, she struggled to find a job after college. This triggered her severe mental illness symptoms and she found herself in a partial hospitalization program. She describes the next decade as a hamster wheel of hospitalizations at psychiatric hospitals and stints at out-patient programs that were too rigid and induced a sense of loneliness.

Then someone told her about Venture House. 

Janet Perisa, a longterm member and new peer specialist at the Brooklyn location.

“We have freedom of choice to lead self directed lives,” said Perisa. “When you’re in the system, you’re oftentimes invalidated by the place.”

Initially she sought friendship from the clubhouse, but as she found her footing she discovered a sense of purpose in helping out other members by utilizing her strengths and experience. Eventually she was appointed to the Board of Directors in 2016, on which she served for seven years. 

This past February, Perisa was hired as a Peer Specialist at Venture House’s young adult supportive housing program in Brooklyn. She is the only member that has been hired on Venture House’s staff. 

While Venture House connects its members with psychiatrists and therapists, there are no clinical mental health treatments offered inside the clubhouse. 

“Our therapy is in creating community,” said Perisa. “We’re like this beautiful bouquet of personalities and we are all instrumental in making the clubhouse work.”

“Science in a Box” kits delivered to District 29

Sun Works kits given to students from three elementary schools

A P.S. 54. student receives her supplies (Photo: Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

By Alicia Venter


600 STEM Hydroponic Kits, also known as “science in a box” kits, were distributed to three elementary schools in Southeast Queens on Friday, Jan. 13.

The schools that received the kits include PS 54, The Hillside School; PS 99, The Kew Gardens School; and PS 144, The Col. Jeromus Remsen School in Forest Hills.

The hydroponic kits were provided by NY Sun Works — a non-profit organization that builds innovative science labs in urban schools — in partnership with local council member Lynn Schulman.

The kits came equipped with a 10-lesson climate and science curriculum meant to enable students, with a teacher’s guidance, to grow, study and run investigations with plants.

They are designed to expose students to hydroponic farming technology on a miniature, hands-on level.

“Our kids only get one chance at a good education. That is why I am thrilled to partner with New York Sun Works to deliver 600 hydroponic STEM kits to local schools throughout Council District 29,” said Schulman in a press release. “These kits will be paired with a 10-lesson curriculum that teaches students the importance of sustainability and urban agriculture while enhancing their  observation and data collection skills. I look forward to seeing the final results from this unique and vital life lesson program.”

The schools also received the Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum, and teachers are provided the tools to tailor the curriculum to address the needs of the students.

The program will reach more than 1000 elementary-age students at the three schools, all located in the 29th Council District that Schulman represents.

“We are excited to engage young learners in plant biology by delivering hundreds of interactive and innovative STEM kits in Queens with Council Member Lynn Schulman,” said Manuela Zamora, NY Sun Works Executive Director in a press release. “We are fully committed to fostering the love for science to every New York City public school student and these kits are an incredible introduction to hydroponic farming that teach climate and the science of sustainability.”

NY Sun Works first introduced the ‘Science in a Box’ Hydroponic Kit program in September 2020. More than 5,000 kits were distributed last year, for both classroom and at-home learning.

In a 2021 study conducted by social science research organization Knology, the kits and curriculum “embody innovation, flexibility, hands-on learning, and critical thinking.

For more information on NY Sun Works, visit nysunworks.org/.

First-of-its-kind Pediatric Ophthalmology Center opens at Jamaica Hospital

By Alicia Venter


Maspeth Federal Savings donated $1 million to the hospital for the opening of the center. Thomas Rudzewick, President & CEO at Maspeth Federal Savings (center) stands with Queens Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Grech (right) and David Daraio, Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer at Maspeth Federal Savings (left) for the plaque unveiling in the center.

Jamaica Hospital Medical Center unveiled its pediatric ophthalmology center on Thursday, Dec. 8, a state-of-the-art facility unlike any others in Queens.

Located on the second floor of the Axel Building, the new facility will provide daily vision services to children who previously may have had limited access to comprehensive ophthalmologic care.

Though there are other pediatric ophthalmology in Queens, there was not a center of excellence that combined all the services Jamaica Hospital Medical Center now has into one place. Such services would require Queens residents to travel to Long Island or Manhattan.

Maspeth Federal Savings donated $1 million to complete the center, following years of planning by Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. The organization is the sole donor to the pediatric ophthalmology center, the hospital shared.

It is this donation that propelled the completion of the project, said Dr. Julia Shulman, Chairperson of the Department of Ophthalmology and pediatric retina specialist.

“There is a big shortage of high-level pediatric ophthalmology expertise in Queens, and we see that in our current eye center because we take care of pediatric patients,” she shared in an interview. “We wanted to be able to create a dedicated space where all the necessary technology and expertise could come together.“

In the past, services could not be provided every day of the week because of space limitations, and children would be serviced in the same center as adults.

However, there are certain space requirements for examining children that are different from adults. The rooms must be 12 feet, for example. Every type of diagnostic equipment that could be needed to examine a child’s eye can now be found in the center, Shulman explained.

“It’s essentially a one-stop shop depending on what the issue is that we can help them with,” she said.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four preschool-aged children have an undiagnosed or untreated vision problem. They recommend that children get regular eye exams to keep their eyes healthy. Common vision problems in children include refractive errors, amblyopia (or ‘lazy eye’) and strabismus (crossed eyes). Any of these issues, as well as simply getting a vision screening for a quick evaluation of a child’s eyes, can be addressed at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center.

Vision disability is one of the top 10 disabilities among adults 18 and older, the CDC states, and one of the most prevalent conditions among children. Approximately 6.8 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States have a diagnosed eye and vision condition, and nearly three percent of children of that age are blind or visually impaired.

“If their children are having any trouble with their eyes, or if they just want to have their children’s eyes checked, now there is going to be tremendous availability,” Shulman said. “If, heaven forbid, their children do end up having a problem, we will be able to diagnose it and treat it at a very high level.”

Thomas Rudzewick, President, and CEO of Maspeth Federal Savings, was in attendance at the ribbon-cutting, as well as other members of the Maspeth Federal team.

Bruce J. Flanz , Dr. Julia Shulman, and Thomas Rudzewick cut the ribbon for the new center.

“Maspeth Federal Savings has been working with Jamaica Hospital throughout the pandemic and has provided mission-critical equipment and supporting donations,” Rudzewick said in a statement. “As a community bank, it’s incredibly important to us that the people and facilities in our community have the resources they need to do what they do best, in this case, providing care that our children desperately need.”

Rudzewick was praised for the contributions the bank made to ensure the completion of the project.

“Think about the impact of this donation,” said Tom Grech, President and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, at the ribbon-cutting. “We are grateful as New Yorkers and as people in Queens. We are thankful to all the Rudzewicks.”

According to their website, Jamaica Hospital Medical Center serves a population greater than 1.2 million in Queens and Eastern Brooklyn.

For more information about the center, visit https://jamaicahospital.org.

Queens kid makes it big as an influencer

3M followers and counting, Blaise Ffrench shoots for the stars

By Jessica Meditz


Jamaica native Blaise Ffrench threw the first pitch at a recent Mets game.

When becoming acquainted with Blaise Ffrench, the typical icebreaker question of “What do you do?” simply isn’t going to cut it.

Ffrench, 32, says his multifaceted career as an online influencer cannot be summed up in a simple sentence.

“It’s not what I do, it’s who I am,” he said. “I’m not like a salesman or a marketing guy; Blaise Ffrench is a Renaissance man. I enjoy all the great things that life has to offer…I just found a way to monetize pretty much everything that I do.”

Ffrench’s social media presence on Instagram (@blaiseffrench) continues to grow by the day — with three million followers and counting.

He said that the best way to describe the type of content he posts is lifestyle, as he focuses on all things fitness, health, food, real estate, sports, motivation and inspiration.

Ffrench is a bicoastal businessman, as his work is based in both New York City and Los Angeles — but he said that his beginnings in Jamaica, Queens are what shaped him into the person he is today.

His career goals began to solidify when he attended Holy Cross High School in Flushing, played basketball and had the opportunity to meet Mike Repole, a Holy Cross alumnus who co-founded Glaceau, the maker of Vitaminwater.

“My teammates were ‘sleeping’ because they didn’t care about drinks, but I thought it was very interesting that this guy created a drink and ended up selling it to Coca-Cola. I was so intrigued, I asked him so many questions and was just bugging him,” Ffrench said. “I just really built that relationship and didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Ffrench and Repole became close by the time he got to college, which is when Repole started BODYARMOR SuperDrink.

“I was one of the first people involved with BODYARMOR, so I was able to get equity in the company. And then when it sold, God bless, because I was able to get a piece of the pie,” Ffrench said.

He’s also seen great success as an actor and model, working with brands such as True Religion, Puma, Banana Republic, Target and Saks Fifth Avenue, and in films including “Plan B,” “The Code,” “Marry Me” and “We Made It In America,” which will come to theaters this January.

Ffrench’s astrological sign is Taurus, and whether one believes in the fate of celestial bodies or not, there’s no denying he fits the stereotypes of being determined, hardworking, dedicated and stubborn in the best way.

In fact, instead of being approached by them, Ffrench reached out to the New York Mets and asked if “a kid from Queens” could throw the honorary first pitch.

Sure enough, earlier this month, he graced the field of his lifelong favorite team in a jersey with his name and threw that first pitch.

“[The Mets] replied, ‘Which game would you like to do it?’ That’s how my life has always been. I’m always asking and pushing the envelope, because no one’s going to come to me while I’m laying on my couch,” he said. “It was unforgettable. I’ll tell my kids about this one.”

Even though he spends a lot of time in LA and other destinations, Ffrench calls Queens home first and foremost, and loves engaging his audience with Queens-centric content.

Among his favorite places are Anassa Taverna in Astoria, The Door in Jamaica and Baisley Pond Park, where he learned to play basketball as a kid.

He reminisced on his childhood, especially visiting Cabana Nuevo Latino in Forest Hills with his mother — who he admires wholeheartedly and devotes his life to.

“I grew up with a single mom, who unfortunately passed away when I was 15. I was always close with my grandma, who’s my mom’s mom, and I started living with her until I got a scholarship to play basketball and pursue my entrepreneurial dreams,” he said. “Family is everything to me. My mom always wanted me to be an entrepreneur and never wanted me to work for anyone. So every day, I just really want to make her proud, my family proud and continue doing the right thing.”

Ffrench and his grandmother, Linda, continue to remain best friends to this day, and she makes cameos on his large Instagram account.

“She’s my lady,” Ffrench said. “We’re like two peas in a pod.”

Regarding advice to younger people who wish to take a similar career path, Ffrench emphasized the importance of networking, talking to people, being brave and not judgmental.

Most of all, he cites the responsibility of having a massive audience.

“It’s definitely a responsibility. I know that I’m a role model, I talk to a lot of people and kids, and I definitely want to uphold myself to a certain standard, and put forth a great example,” he said.

“I can still do that by having fun and saying what I want to say, you just have to be smart, how you articulate what you’re saying and make sure that it’s good to be consumed by the masses, so to speak, so, I love it.”

A green and clean southeast Queens

Adams calls for beautification of southeast Queens neighborhoods

By Evan Triantafilidis


Despite not attaining one percent of the city’s agreed upon $101.1 million budget for its parks and green spaces, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams spent her Saturday morning advocating for a greener and cleaner southeast Queens.

NYC H2O interns Adid Rahman and Yael Colchero go into Baisley Pond as part of Saturday’s cleanup event.

A rally held at Baisley Pond Park in Jamaica highlighted the need for community involvement in beautification projects and praised the ongoing efforts already underway for cleaner streets, parks, and open spaces.

Representatives from city agencies and community advocate groups were in attendance to cheer on each other before a community cleanup of Baisley Pond Park.

“For a long time, southeast Queens has grappled with issues of traffic in our neighborhoods, from consistent illegal parking to inadequate litter basket service,” Adams said. “During the height of the pandemic, the people of our communities have bore the brunt of this long-standing problem.”

Within the city’s budget for parks is $43 million added for upgrades and maintenance, and an additional $4 million is slated to bring 50 Urban Park Rangers for programming, wildlife management and staffing at nature centers.

The budget also calls for $22 million to increase litter basket service above pre-pandemic levels and funding a waste containerization study and 1,000 rat-resistant litter baskets for $5 million.

An additional $488 million in capital funds will go towards funding parks improvement projects, including planting 20,000 trees per year, and adding new greenways in Brooklyn and Queens.

The one percent threshold for parks was a campaign promise of Mayor Eric Adams that will fall short by a few hundred million dollars.

Carl and Zara Williams

“Our beloved green spaces and waterways like Baisley Pond Park also require improved maintenance and care,” Councilwoman Adams said. “They have been and continue to be a haven for all of us throughout this pandemic. So it is imperative that we invest in their upkeep.”

Adams, the former chair of Community Board 12, added that her former Community Board has one of the highest rates of illegal dumping complaints in the city.

New York State Senator Leroy Comrie says he believes in the leadership of Council Speaker Adams and Majority Whip Selvena Brooks-Powers, to transform southeast Queens’ open spaces into an example for both the borough and city.

He expressed the importance of community cleanups like Saturday morning’s event, where volunteers from the Carpenter Contractor Alliance of Metropolitan of New York showed up to pick up litter throughout the park.

“You want to be able to come to a clean environment, near your home, that is maintained by a community effort,” Comrie said. He also applauded the local initiatives that “increase the opportunity for local participation and do everything else necessary to make our parks beautiful.”

Brooks-Powers honed in on the local problem of illegal dumping that she called a chronic issue across the city, especially in southeast Queens.

She cited a recent cleanup on the boardwalk in Far Rockaway where organizers and volunteers collected over 80,000 pounds of trash.

“This surprising number is a testament to how serious the issue for our community really is,” Brooks-Powers said. “Every day, my staff and I field calls from constituents, reporting another incident of littering, and we are hard at work to respond to the dumping issues and cleanup requests.”

As part of Saturday’s cleanup, interns from NYC H2O went into the park’s pond to remove debris and garbage. Students learned about the history and ecology behind Baisley Pond, which was once a reservoir built in 1858 to supply what was at the time the City of Brooklyn.

The pond serves as a native habitat for wildlife including turtles, frogs and red-headed ducks, says Matt Molina, director and founder of H2O NYC.

“We are cleaning here today because we want students to see the beauty of the park rather than the garbage,” Molina said. “And these cleanups are something that we love doing because they bring out the best in the best New Yorkers.”

Fill the Form for Events, Advertisement or Business Listing