Despite Obstacles, Community Organization Remains Upbeat

By Kieran K. Meadows

Rebecca Fishburne waited outside a large brick-red building on Valentine’s Day morning in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She was waiting for a mobile HIV testing van to arrive, but the van was running an hour late. Despite the bitter cold, Fishburne, the organizer of the free “HIV Testing Day,” wasn’t discouraged.

Instead, she remained calm, determined to hold a successful community event.

“You just have to take a deep breath, relax, and keep it moving,” said Fishburne, a community health coordinator with the local organization and sponsor of the event, the Red Hook Initiative. “If you don’t, then you’ll freak over everything.”

Fishburne’s calm and positive attitude while waiting for the van is a perfect analogy for the Red Hook Initiative’s own current situation. The organization lost its Clinton Street headquarters of five years last November, and is now waiting to move into a larger space in the heart of the neighborhood. But the new space needs to be renovated before the group, which provides numerous programs and services to hundreds of youth and adults each month, most of whom live in public housing, can move in. The cost of the renovation is over $300,000. Fundraising that much money takes awhile, even in better economic times.

Despite the obstacles resulting from the upcoming move, the Initiative’s employees are coping well and spirits are strong.

“The Red Hook Initiative does a lot for the community,” said Debbie Jackson, a diabetes health educator. “We’re going to survive no matter what. We’re making it happen.”

The organization, originally called the Red Hook Health Initiative, began in 2002 as a project of Long Island College Hospital to provide health education in an effort to address growing health disparities in Red Hook, particularly in the Red Hook Houses.

Residents of the Houses, the largest public housing project in Brooklyn and the second largest in the city, make up over 70 percent of the population of the neighborhood, according to the 2000 census. One thing that is unique about the Initiative is that 95 percent of its employees – 53 out of 55 employees – live in the Houses. The community-based organization believes that change comes from within.

The Initiative’s current turmoil began on November 14, when the Police Athletic League evicted the group from its home. The League owned the Clinton Street building and needed the space back for its own use.

In the face of this serious setback, the organization is now running many of its programs from local churches, the recreation center, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, and two local schools, P.S. 15 and P.S. 27.

The Initiative itself has been operating out of a temporary office studio on Richards Street near Van Dyke Street, closer to the “back” of Red Hook, the area near the waterfront.

“We’re all in one room,” said Vanessa Staton, the office manager. “We’re all uncomfortable.”

“The morale is down around here,” she added, referring to so many people having to work in such a small space.

In November, the Initiative had been very close to signing a lease for an almost 3,000 square-foot warehouse on Hicks Street in the heart of the Houses. But only $60,000 out of the more than $300,000 needed to renovate the warehouse has been raised so far.

The group is still trying to gather the remaining funds, but hopes to sign the lease in early March and move in by the summer. The Initiative is appealing to government officials, private foundations, individual donors, local community members, and local businesses.

In that spirit, during the month of March, several Red Hook restaurants, Rocky Sullivan’s, Hope & Anchor, The Good Fork, Kevin’s Restaurant, and Tini’s, will be donating 10 percent of their nightly proceeds to the Initiative’s building fund.

The Initiative’s space problems have also affected the very people the group serves—the residents of the “front,” a local term for the massive public housing project that sits close to the Gowanus Expressway. Residents who live in Red Hook East can no longer just cross the street to get to the Initiative. Some have to take the B77 bus. Others have decided to walk a much farther distance than they were used to.

“It’s isolated back there and it’s scary sometimes,” said Lena Bennett, who does diabetes health outreach for the Initiative, referring to the back’s often-empty streets.

Eisenhard said that even though the organization can still run most of its programs, it’s not the same as having a home that residents know is always there. And the size and location of the temporary office hasn’t helped either.

“We had people drop in,” said Staton. “That doesn’t even happen anymore.”

In fact, attendance at programs has gone down slightly, and as a result, it is possible that funding for programs could go down as well.
The Initiative has also had to stop collecting donated clothing for people to take.

“We just don’t have the space,” said Fishburne.

Youth who are under 18 years old have been most impacted, said Eisenhard. Many of them considered the Initiative’s space a second home. Others were able to pick up dress clothes for formal events.

“Some of the kids had job interviews and they needed suits,” said Fishburne.

Until the group moves into the new headquarters, it will just have to continue making do, just like the crew that organized and worked the mobile HIV testing program on Valentine’s Day morning. At 11 a.m., the white van, owned by the Sunset Park-based nonprofit and Initiative partner organization, Turning Point, finally arrived and parked outside the Senior Citizens Center on Wolcott Street. By noon, a handful of people had already been tested. A still upbeat Fishburne and the driver, Troy Evans, retreated to the back room of the small local branch of the public library across the street to keep warm.

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