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Sunnyside settlement house transformed how it aided hundreds of residents during COVID-19 pandemic

Sunnyside Community Services handed out food to older adults each month during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo credit: United Neighborhood Houses)

Settlement houses in New York are tasked with supporting communities throughout every crisis the city faces. Sunnyside Community Services was among the many organizations that adapted their services during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue aiding hundreds of older adults each day. 

Shyvonne Noboa, the division director for senior services at Sunnyside Community Services, said that she and her team did everything they could to stay connected with seniors after the center closed due to the pandemic, providing home care and access to food, as well as making over 28,000 wellness calls throughout the pandemic.

“Our older adults in our Queens community are incredibly resilient,” Noboa said. “We connected with them so that, although they were isolated physically from our services, they were never alone.” 

Before the pandemic, the Sunnyside location would have more than 200 seniors walk through their doors. As the coronavirus changed the dynamic of their service, Noboa said they rose to the occasion. 

“It’s been a long 18 months,” Noboa said. “When we first were faced with this pandemic, we hit the ground running. We really had to learn a different way to listen to their needs to identify and connect them to needed services.”

Noboa said shifting their services to help older adults during the pandemic was like “crisis mode.”

“We really didn’t have a moment to pause and think about what was going on,” Noboa said. “Pre-COVID, we were doing home visits, coming out to our center to have lunch or sit through an education session — it was different.”

Employees had to shift to a more intuitive approach to care with their wellness calls. They could no longer make house visits and see laundry piling up to know someone needed help around the house. 

“There was a sense of safety knowing that you could just walk through the door,” Noboa said. “There was such a sense of comfort, trust and safety that was really taken away with the pandemic.”

Sunnyside Community Services made sure to virtually connect their older adults to activities that would keep them healthy. Online Zumba, yoga and other activities were, and still remain, available. The Sunnyside location adopted a hybrid model this past June.

Sunnyside Community Services made sure each of the older adults they served had food during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo credit: United Neighborhood Houses)

“We really have created an online senior center,” Noboa said. “So if participants aren’t able to partake in our center in person, we’re still remaining connected virtually.”

Noboa said the highlight of this experience was being able to see the older adults since the center opened for in-person programming in June.

United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) — a policy organization that supports 45 settlement houses, including Sunnyside Community Services — is currently looking ahead to the new mayoral administration in hopes of a more unified approach to social service.

Nora Moran, UNH’s director of policy and advocacy, said that under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, there was a lack of partnership between the mayor’s office and human service organizations in general. 

“Throughout COVID, this was definitely a big challenge where proposals were being made to change or cut funding without looking at existing resources on the ground in neighborhoods and figuring out how to maximize those to best serve a community,” Moran said. “Instead of looking at what was in place already, [they were] building up a new system that didn’t really make sense.”

UNH is looking for a mayor that will invest in community-based programming that already has deep roots in the neighborhoods they serve.

“We’re trying to figure out how to best keep people safe, housed, educated and healthy,” Moran said. “Because of that, we feel there should be more of a collaborative relationship between settlement houses and the mayoral administration.”

UNH does not publicly support any candidate because of its 501(c)(3) status that prohibits them from doing so. However, Moran said their policy positions are pretty clear.

To learn more about Queens settlement houses under UNH, visit unhny.org.

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