Corona, the neighborhood in Queens that is home to PS 19, was often called the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. And like others in the neighborhood, the PS 19 school community was hit hard by illness, layoffs and food insecurity.
Luckily, PS 19 is part of the UFT’s United Community Schools (UCS) initiative. “Everybody came together in a time of need,” said teacher Christina Tholl.
Staff quickly built on the school’s existing food pantry to set up 10 pantries per month from three different locations for distributions of groceries to school families. The number of families served jumped from about 300 per month before the pandemic to some 1,000, or two-thirds of PS 19’s families, during the crisis. UFT member volunteers, including Tholl, pack-aged and delivered the groceries so families could stay quarantined.
PS 19’s food pantry was made possible in part by a grant from the New York Mets Foundation and another from the Robin Hood Foundation, which gave the same grant to PS 52, another UCS school in Jamaica, Queens. Many PS 52 families live in shelters, so the school partnered with Queens Food Court, a nearby restaurant owned by a former student, to provide hot, prepared meals to 45 families that don’t have access to kitchens. Other PS 52 families received Stop & Shop gift cards each week.
Both schools were able to quickly meet students’ needs during the crisis because staff had already built strong relationships in the school and the community. “That’s what community schools do,” said Christine Schuch, the associate executive director of UCS.
As community schools, they offer dental care, eye exams, free winter coats, academic enrichment programs and other services. But in addition to “identifying and then meeting students’ needs,” said Schuch, they also “leverage resources that already exist in the community.” For example, the New York Hall of Science provided space where PS 19 volunteers could prepare their deliveries.
Tholl praised Allison Brown, the PS 19 community school director. Brown “works so hard all year making sure families have what they need,” so the school was able to “jump into action,” said Tholl. “I wish we had community schools everywhere.”