Jackson Heights’ COVID Care Neighbor Network: A multi-purpose resource center run by neighbors for neighbors

Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo
Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a resident of Jackson Heights, is leading the COVID Care Neighbor Network.
Photo courtesy of Dawn Falcone

Right in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, neighbors are working together to support each other through the COVID Care Neighbor Network.

The COVID Care Neighbor Network (CCNN), a Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Woodside community initiative and mutual aid group, is led by Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a candidate for State Assembly District 34. It all began with a Post-it Note that O’Doherty-Naranjo placed on neighbors’ doors with her phone number, offering to help them in whatever way possible in March.

But, as the need grew, so did her initiative, leaving her campaign to represent the district she knows and loves on the back-burner.

“You plan for one campaign — I said, ‘I’m going to talk about education and health care’ — and then a pandemic hits,” said O’Doherty-Naranjo, who’s running a grassroots campaign on the Democratic Party line.

The CCNN has served more than 1,000 families in need ever since they began their work, which ranges from distributing grocery bags to legal advice from O’Doherty-Naranjo, a former Manhattan prosecutor.

The mutual aid group, which uses a Facebook page to organize and share information, has more than 700 volunteers feeding day laborers, running errands, cooking for elders (they started an adopt an elder program), and doing check-in calls. CCNN, which has its food pantry located right in O’Doherty-Naranjo’s garage, has also delivered more than 800 grocery bags complete with bread, milk, eggs, fresh produce, canned, dry goods, pampers, candy, and other basic needs.

CCNN counts on food donations from local teachers, neighbors and businesses — like The Queensboro restaurant, who they recently partnered with.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Falcone

They’ve even partnered with the non-profit Together We Can, who have social workers that help individuals apply for government aid and allows CCNN to fundraise for more goods to distribute among the community.

“None of it would be possible if not for the way the entire community is coming together in support,” Dawn Falcone, Volunteer Coordinator at CCNN, said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

One woman in Jackson Heights was on the brink of starvation, as she couldn’t leave the house with a compromised immune system, had difficulty walking and couldn’t count on a group of friends or family to help — but thanks to O’Doherty-Naranjo and CCNN, she was finally able to eat after two weeks, as told in a Gothamist story.

O’Doherty-Naranjo said she’s witnessed the need grow more and more with each passing week as unemployment rates keep rising, particularly for the undocumented community in Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona (some of the Queens neighborhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases to date).

“I look at it as four parts: When we first started, people were scared and needed reassurance,” O’Doherty-Naranjo said. “Then, life interrupted, how to get medical assistance, for example. Then in early April, it was the dark times, when all you heard were birds and ambulances. Then it got even more scary and we started getting calls about how to bury family members, how to update wills, and from immigrant families who ran out of money, ‘how do I feed my family?'”

But, she said it’s “disheartening” to see that city and state government have been slow to act.

“The sad thing is that we knew our federal government would ignore our undocumented neighbors, but the city has left our neighbors out too. We might get unemployment, stimulus checks, and other benefits, but our undocumented people get nothing,” she said.

O’Doherty-Naranjo noted that some of the city’s programs, such as their prepared meal deliveries, aren’t efficient.

“The reality is that most families want to be able to cook a meal and eat as a family,” she said. “This is really not a job for volunteers, it should be the city’s responsibility.”

CCNN has raised more than $40,000 to keep their pantry stocked, but O’Doherty-Naranjo said there is too much need. “We’ve raised enough money to go into June, but this is going to last until August. We need a long term solution,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Falcone

She thought the best way to help families would be for the federal government to create an EBT program or the city create something similar to their Health Bucks initiative that would put actual cash in people’s hands.

And just last week, it was announced that all NYC public school families will receive $420 per child for food benefits through a coronavirus relief effort from the federal government.

Although O’Doherty-Naranjo is known for her activism in the vibrant community — she ran the Jackson Heights Beautification group, organizing events like Halloween parades — she doesn’t want to see it continue to suffer. She wants elected officials to take charge.

“I want to put myself out of business, I want the government to get back to work,” O’Doherty-Naranjo said. “When you ask day laborers, all they want is to go back to work. They want to work but there is no work anywhere … so until then, the government needs to step up and help our neighbors.”

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