News Articles

What it Means to Be Part of a Community: The Undocumented Heroes of Westchester

When Volunteers Were In Short Supply, Day Laborers Came Together To Help


Volunteers at St. Rosa Lima Church // Bridget Hagerty 

By Jim Sliney Jr

If you read, “We all Need Food and Shelter, but Eviction Makes that Difficult,”  then you have some idea of the vast challenge faced by Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS) of Westchester. From an exploding eviction risk, unemployment, to a need for food and basic household items. But how its all getting done is quite remarkable.

During pre-COVID, Catholic Charities leverages an extraordinary volunteer force. But many of those volunteers are of such age that they are increasingly vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. During the pandemic, many had to make the difficult, yet inevitable choice to stop volunteering, stay home in self-isolation, and mitigate their exposure to risk. That was hard on everyone.

Think about it, as the volunteer staff shrank considerably, the work of the charity increased considerably. That would be an equation that could have ended in disaster -- But it didn’t. Here’s why.

In Westchester, as previously mentioned, there is a relatively high number of undocumented residents. Many of these undocumented residents are day laborers. Day laborers don’t work on a contract or have payroll protections. They work when there’s money to pay them, and when there’s no money to hire them, they don’t find work. Because of this volatility, an important part of CCCS Westchester is a support mechanism for those day laborers called Obreros Unidos de Yonkers (or, The Day Laborers Program of Yonkers).

When Covid-19 landed in New York (and you’ll remember, it began in New Rochelle, in Westchester) those day laborers were immediately out of work. They needed help fast. But rather than ask for help…they came together in community. Fifteen able-bodied laborers, freshly out of work, volunteered with Catholic Charities too transport, drive, unpack and otherwise get food across the county to the pantries and pop-ups where they were needed.

And other undocumented residents stepped up to do the amazing.

With personal protective equipment (PPE) being in short supply, sixty women came forward to help. These were women who Catholic Charities had helped by putting them through a sewing course so they could have a marketable skill. Well, these women, graduates of this skilled labor program, made and donated 500 face masks to CCCS Westchester, so that workers, volunteers, and the people who lined up to get food from the pantries could all have masks and stay safe.

In both of these cases, these were undocumented residents who came to Catholic Charities to offer their skills and hard work because they knew their community was hurting.

Catholic Charities Community Services, whether it be of Westchester, Ulster, Sullivan, Rockland, Putnam, or Orange counties, or servicing Staten Island, Manhattan or the Bronx, they all serve COMMUNITY. It is through community that New York has been able to improve as much as it has from the Coronavirus. Compare where we are today to where we were in late April at our worst. Community is what made recovery possible. Every age, residential status, spoken language, educational background - we shared the hurt, the moral support, and now see a light maybe at the end of the tunnel.