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An Insiders Peek into The New York Times Neediest Cases

Posted on January 6, 2017 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Meet Andre and Jamal

For more than a century The New York Times has spotlighted New York’s “Neediest Cases” and for more than a decade I’ve had the honor to meet some of these brave folks and the dedicated case managers that help them. So let’s pull back the curtain today and learn the story behind the story of two of my favorite, Andre and Jamal.

I cannot wipe away the memory of Andre Steinberg and his younger brother, Jamal, when I first met these recent orphans more than seven years ago.  Their single mother, Tracy Young, 37, died of colon cancer just days before Thanksgiving 2008.  Her orphaned sons and I met shortly after her death in the Harlem railroad flat where they had lived all their lives. They looked stunned, shaken and alone.  Making things worse, the landlord, realizing the lease holder was gone, filed to evict them so he could sell the apartment on the now-hot Manhattan real estate market.

Andre, six feet tall and slim with soft brown eyes and the direct look of a teen comfortable with his role as big brother, also conveyed a nervousness, a quick laugh, a throat cleared, that confessed better than words the weight of his new role.  Nineteen years old, he was suddenly stepping in as guardian for Jamal, less than three years his junior.  Each had a different dad with whom they never lived.  In this sense they were not truly orphans.  But they sure felt alone.  

The only life they knew was together. Before their mom’s diagnosis Andre realized his dream of getting out of the city, studying digital design and being the first in his family to attend college.  But he left SUNY College at Delhi, transferring to Hostos Community College, to help his mom and care for his brother, then a high school junior.

I was afraid that talking about losing their mom would reopen fresh wounds.  Instead, they loved to talk about her, quote her frequent counsel, speak of her struggles and tell how she insisted they strive for more.

“Do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do,” they said she told them again and again. 

A high school dropout who later got her GED and worked in the finance division at Kings County Hospital, she was determined they break out of the neighborhood and build better lives. She enrolled them in tap dancing, painting and free programs through the Fresh Air Fund.  She never let them hang out with the kids on the streets below.

And now this force, this love was gone.

So Catholic Charities, personified by Case Manager Letticia Batista, stepped in.  Raised in the city, she knew the dangers the boys faced.  And she knew she would need every resource in her arsenal to protect them. 

So she helped them find a new home in a sunny two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.  She enrolled Jamal in Opportunity NYC, a program that acted like a suburban parent, tutoring Jamal with his studies, helping him apply for college and offering allowance-type financial incentives for his success.  And she worked with me to share their story as a New York Times Neediest Case, the original crowd-funding source that allows fellow New Yorkers to target their help to folks like Andre and Jamal, folks faced by tragedy, struggling and in need.

Donors quickly stepped in. And Catholic Charities helped in special ways.  Our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan learned of their talents and trials and asked to meet the boys.  When he found out about Andre’s graphic art talents, he offered him a paid internship to fill a need in the communications and marketing department where I work.

It was hard not to feel maternal, to treat Andre as a colleague, not as the orphaned son I first met.  But his digital talents won me over.  Soon I relied on him to design booklets, magazines and ads I wrote.

As he spread his work across my desk he would fill me in on his younger brother. Jamal graduated last May from the State University of New York at Old Westbury, he told me with unmasked pride, and experienced the brothers’ mutual dream of attending college outside the city. 

Meanwhile, Andre completed his bachelor’s degree at the New York City College of Technology and decided to build his own business as a graphic designer.  When the New York Times Neediest Cases editor said he was looking for an older Neediest Cases story with a happy ending I knew immediately the story for him.

Meet Andre and Jamal in this New York Times 2009 Neediest Case profile

Read about Andre and Jamal today in this update from the New York Times

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