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USES launches Neighbor to Neighbor food program

The food program currently serves 135 households

Brian Wright O’Connor
USES launches Neighbor to Neighbor food program
Maicharia Weir Lytle at the Harriet Tubman House. PHOTO: ERINT IMAGES

As a volunteer pulls her car up to the curb in the sprawling Cathedral projects, children wearing blue medical masks climb a nearby jungle gym under an unseasonably hot sun.

Gabriela Cruzado, with her two boys in tow, breaks away from the playground to meet Silvia Buonamici, whose own children attend United South End Settlements programs with Cruzado’s.

But today’s visit is about more than friendship forged in pre-school and after-school activities at the South End agency. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Cruzado is living on a reduced salary from her dental health job with the South End Neighborhood Health Center. She considers herself fortunate to have any income at all while not working, but the household expenses continue to pile up.

USES volunteer Silvia Buonamici hands over a package of diapers to 2-year-old Logan with his mother, Gabriela Cruzado, and his brother, Troy, Standing curbside. PHOTO: ERINT IMAGES

USES volunteer Silvia Buonamici hands over a package of diapers to 2-year-old Logan with his mother, Gabriela Cruzado, and his brother, Troy, Standing curbside. PHOTO: ERINT IMAGES

The young mother says the Neighbor to Neighbor food delivery program, launched in recent weeks by USES to help families struggling to put food on the table, is a lifeline in a time of need.

“It really helps,” she says, handing a box containing romaine lettuce, sweet potatoes, pineapples and other produce to her 9-year-old son Troy while Logan, 2, steps forward to take a package of diapers from Buonamici.

“At the end of the day, even though I’m in public housing and I’m lucky enough to get some pay, I have expenses like my car payment and food that my salary just doesn’t cover.”

Buonamici, a microbiologist and venture capitalist with two kids of her own, is one of about 30 volunteers who help package fresh and imperishable food boxes along with supplies like paper towels, toilet paper and diapers and deliver them weekly to roughly half the families served by the 128-year-old agency.

“I love helping my neighbors,” says the native of Bologna, Italy, whose name means “good friends” in Italian.

“I’m working from home and keep busy, but we have time,” she says. “This gives me the opportunity to be useful when we are all wondering what we can do to help.”

With close to 35 million Americans out of work since the coronavirus hit – including 1 of every 5 Massachusetts workers – food pantries and soup kitchens have seen lines rivaling Depression-era demand. Rising food insecurity now approaches a national crisis, threatening mental and physical health in marginalized and low-income households across the country.

Maicharia Weir Lytle, the USES president for the last five years, launched the Neighbor to Neighbor Fund for Families, along with components like its food program, as a way to assist many of the 225 families that depend on the venerable agency for services.

“We started the initiative after the global pandemic hit,” she says during an interview at the USES’s Harriet Tubman House on Columbus Avenue. “As we looked to reimagine our services during the crisis, we set our priority on helping families get through this in the spirit of Harriet Tubman.”

Tubman, the famed 19th-century abolitionist, served as honorary president of the settlement house from its establishment in 1892 until her death in 1913. The Columbus Avenue facility, named in her honor, was built four decades ago on the site of the famous Hi-Hat club where jazz legends Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker entertained Boston’s interracial demi-monde in the golden era of bebop and swing.

As Weir Lytle talks, masked volunteers on the sunlit floor of the atrium behind her load food and supplies into boxes and bags for deliveries later in the day.

“We are looking to support families remotely. Our staff make weekly calls to families that are part of our early education, after-school and family mobility programs,” she says.

“Some 46% of the families we’ve contacted have lost jobs or income as a result of the pandemic,” she adds. “We learned that many are struggling with food resources and access, including many of the kids in our programs who are fed breakfast, lunch and snacks every day.”

The food program currently serves 135 households – helping to nourish about 500 South End residents with once-a-week deliveries on Fridays by volunteers and some of the 44 staff. The initiative also connects families like Cruzado’s and Buonamici’s in the racial and income melting pot of the South End, where children from subsidized housing and gentrified townhouses often study at the same schools, play in the same parks and attend the same programs.

The Neighbor to Neighbor Fund has financed the food program as well as cash subsidies to help families pay rent and cover other essential needs, providing $18,000 so far this year to 30 households. About $700,000 has been raised with a goal of $1 million by June 30.

USES currently serves about 75% people of color among its clients on a $4.3 million annual budget. The agency, founded to serve black women and their families moving to Boston from the South and the Caribbean, is hustling to keep pace with the latest wave of changing demands for aid caused by the global pandemic.

The transition is taking place as USES prepares to move out of the Harriet Tubman House, which has been sold to a developer who will tear down the three-story brick edifice and replace it with 66 condos, including 11 income-restricted units, as well as ground-floor commercial space and an art gallery.

Lower maintenance costs at the agency’s revamped Rutland Street headquarters and adjacent arts center, along with proceeds from the $16 million sale, will ensure the continuance of programs far into the future, says the USES president.

“There is some misunderstanding about what a building does and what an organization does,” she says, addressing critics who have launched failed attempts to block the sale. “Our mission is to disrupt the cycle of poverty, and the sale of the building will allow us to better fulfill that mission.”

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