Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sinergia: A Look Back at 2010's Accomplishments

2010 was a year full of change for Sinergia, and before we fully embark into the New Year and start tackling all the challenges it is sure to bring, we’d like to pause for a moment and take stock of some of our accomplishments in the last 12 months. January started out with a flutter of activity because, after much planning and preparation, in early February we finally carried out a major relocation to East Harlem, taking over two floors at 2082 Lexington Avenue. Our sparkling new offices are situated in the heart of a community that is very near and dear to us, and one that is home to a large number of the individuals with disabilities and families we serve. Our new location in El Barrio affords us with better opportunities to connect children and adults with disabilities and their families to community supports. Here we are also well poised to contribute to the capacity building that is bringing many organizations back to East Harlem, including the Hunter College School of Social Work of the City University of New York, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and the Aprendes Foundation, which is planning on opening a Charter High School in the area. We have active collaborations with all of them and expect to expand that in the future.

In April we hosted a ribbon cutting event which opened our offices to the public and included a ceremony acknowledging the contributions of five pioneer Latino women leaders. Later on, during the summer, we immersed ourselves in the Promise Neighborhood movement to bring wraparound services to at risk children with the aim of reducing the achievement gap of students and which calls for solutions to strengthen the East Harlem community that they call home. More than a dozen organizations collaborated with us in this major effort. Unfortunately Sinergia’s was not one of the winning submissions, but our hope is to leverage the connections we initiated to help lift educational barriers in El Barrio. A follow-up community educational forum was held in November to engage parents, educators and key stakeholders in finding solutions to the problems that are besetting Latino youth, who are at the bottom of education and employment indicators. We hope this will be the first of further ongoing discussions.

Sadly with July came news of the sudden passing of our wonderful leader, Dr. Sally Romero (left), who was President of the Board of Directors for the past five years. Her experience and knowledge in the fields of education and social services were a true asset. We will remember Sally with a great deal of affection and extend our gratitude to her family for sharing her with us. Dr. Len Torres took over the helm of the governance structure of Sinergia upon her untimely death, and in September at our annual meeting, three very accomplished new members were added to the board of directors. We presently have fourteen members on our board and are extremely thankful for all they do to advance our mission.

Our collaborations with the PACER Center’s National Family Advocacy Support and Training Program led Sinergia to pilot four of the program curriculums for parents and translate them into Spanish. The sessions were conducted bilingually at the height of one of the worst snow storms of the year in February and despite that were extremely well attended. This past month we also partnered with the Healthy Families University Settlement Society of NY on a proposed project to help improve the outcomes for parents with intellectual disabilities and their infants, toddlers and young children. We are especially pleased about our relationship building with the Association to Benefit Children.

On the technology front, Sinergia was selected as one of eight Parent Training and Education Centers and Community Parent and Resource Centers to be part of the Technology Leadership Initiative funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education (OSEP). This initiative will increase our technology building capacity to serve people with disabilities and their families. We are also making full use of the social networks by disseminating valuable information through an active Facebook page and a blog as well as a monthly eNewsletter which is also translated into Spanish and reproduced in hard copy for those families without computers. And through the generosity of IBM and the PACER Center, Sinergia received 10 Young Explorer Computers (pictured) and software which were distributed to seven early childhood centers in the area.

Our new space has been graced with two beautiful art exhibitions this year: one by noted Puerto Rican artist, Samuel Lind, and the current one by East Harlem artist Clemente Flores (right). We are very grateful to these two accomplished painters for their generosity and willingness to share their visions of Island and El Barrio life with us.

Myrta Cuadra-Lash, Sinergia’s executive director, has been asked to speak on several occasions, including at a forum on culturally competent programs sponsored by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene at Fordham University, and at the NYS Office for People With Developmental Disabilities - Women of Excellence event. In addition she was interviewed in July by the Harlem World radio program on Sinergia’s Promise Neighborhood submission.

This year we bid a fond farewell to OPWDD Commissioner Diana Ritter Jones, Assoc. Comm. Kathy Broderick and Dr. Hugh Tarpley, Director of Metro DDSO, and our own Rocio Mendez, an Intake Specialist who is pursuing her acting career with the NJ Shakespeare Theatre. We wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

Last but not least, our recap of 2010 wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of our fun activities, and our annual summer family picnic in Central Park was a lively example of that, with over 250 children and parents attending. Then in December Sinergia held its annual Christmas celebration at Lincoln Center’s Julliard School -- now in its 25th year! The Department of Sanitation of the City of NY (Unit M7, below right) has been our ongoing sponsor, and they helped make this the best one yet. The large space was filled to capacity and overflowing with the joy of children playing, singing and anticipating Santa’s arrival. All the happiness and laughter in the room rejuvenated our commitment to our mission: that of helping children, adults and families to realize meaningful, fully inclusive lives. Sinergia wishes to thank all our funders, particularly the NYS Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Ed Programs (OSEP) as well as all our friends, families and staff for their unwavering support.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Personalized Appointment Book Helps Sol Keep Track of Time

Sol G. is an individual with disabilities who has been receiving services from Sinergia for more than 20 years.  Recently, Sol himself and the staff that work with him, had begun to notice that he was having trouble recalling the dates and times of his appointments, and who they were with.  Additionally, Sol, who also works for Sinergia four days a week as an office assistant, was having trouble keeping track of the days he worked and when to expect to be paid. These issues had begun to cause him a great deal of frustration and anxiety and on several occasions he lamented to the staff working with him that he was very unhappy with this turn of events.  Given the anxiety and angst that Sol was demonstrating, we knew that we had to do something that would help to alleviate the stress that he was feeling. Sol’s treatment team met and discussed several options.

Led by Johanna Stieg, LMSW, who is working as a consultant with Sinergia’s UpLiving program, the team devised a communication and appointment book that would help Sol remember tasks, his job schedule and other events in his life. The book is a binder divided into several sections including a To Do list, a communication section for staff and Sol (with staff assistance) to report on various issues, a money management section to help Sol with budgeting and an icon driven weekly calendar. The calendar includes small laminated symbols and pictures of events, people and places that are each backed with a circle of Velcro so that each individual piece can be placed on the hourly grid that corresponds with the time and day that this event occurs. All of the people, places and events portrayed in each laminated icon are regular parts of Sol’s day to day life and their placement on the daily grid makes it much easier for Sol to visualize and grasp his busy schedule. At the beginning of each week the icons are adjusted or replaced by other symbols to indicate recurring or new events for the new week. This allows Sol to graphically review his week by looking at the grid for that particular day. So far, the book has been a great success and both Sol and his staff are enjoying its effectiveness.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010 Brought Trial and Victory for Sinergia's Day Hab Program

For Sinergia’s Day Habilitation Program, consistency is an important foundation for progress. As we mentioned in an earlier post, the program helps adults with developmental disabilities to expand their social, recreational and vocational skills. Changes in scheduling can be very disruptive to the Day Hab participants but early in 2010 they demonstrated how well they could handle a big transition. That's when Sinergia packed up and moved to a new location in East Harlem, at 2082 Lexington Avenue on 126th Street. After much anticipation and fanfare, Sinergia’s brand new offices were ready on February 1st. On that day and in the months since then, the Day Hab participants have shown that they don’t adapt to new surroundings by trial and error but by trial and victory! They quickly learned new transportation routes and braved new bus rides home. When the new elevator was being repaired, they climbed the stairs or took an alternate elevator. It’s as though every participant was determined to make 2082 Lexington their new home.

Putting their green thumbs to work at the Carver Garden.
While the neighborhood in Harlem is very different than the one at 29th Street, the Day Hab participants have embraced change and used it as a springboard for adventure. Day Hab groups have volunteered at the Carver Garden on East 124th St., growing fresh vegetables and learning how to prepare them. They’ve visited the library and shopped at the brand new mall on 116th St. which houses Manhattan’s first Target store. They've also walked to Yankee Stadium, gone swimming at the local public pools and played basketball and football games at the park on 130th Street.
Go Yankees!

The new location has not been an impediment to continuing past activities like Encore Meals on Wheels or exercising at the YMCA and Riverside Park. Life on Lexington Avenue has continued as usual with fun activities and adventurous new excursions. Some participants volunteered at the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition Shelter, walking homeless dogs and caring for lonely cats. In July, some of them went “Walking with the Dinosaurs” at Madison Square Garden. They've visited exciting places like Rye Playland, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Coney Island, and also had fun closer to home, barbecuing in a local park and picnicking in the garden.
Riding the Staten Island Ferry
The new spacious conference room on the fourth floor was the perfect place for the first Volunteer Award Ceremony and Spring Art Exhibit, as well as the annual Thanksgiving Lunch on November 24th. Day Hab also observed Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month with informational celebrations, we premiered our first Photography Exhibit, and had a costume party for Halloween. The participants are now looking forward to holiday celebrations in December and the Dinner Dance in January.  With the coming of the New Year, Day Hab will continue taking on new challenges and adventures in stride. It’s what they do!

--Rob, Vianka, and Erin

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spotlight on the We Are Parents Too Program

Parents with developmental disabilities are frequently considered unable to provide adequately for their children, and as a result the youngsters then end up being placed in the foster care system. According to Through the Looking Glass (TLG), a disability nonprofit agency in Berkeley, California, the out-of-home placement rate in foster care for children of parents with intellectual disabilities is 25 to 60%.

In the 1980’s Sinergia pioneered a parent training and education program for parents with developmental disabilities.  It was prompted by our experiences providing community housing and supports for families headed by persons with developmental disabilities who lived with their infants and young children.  The premise was that intensive services, supports and parent training were needed in order to help the mothers and fathers become effective parents and keep their families together. This was the beginning of the “We Are Parents Too” program.   We are very appreciative that through these many years the NYS Office of People with Developmental Disabilities has supported and funded this program which has helped countless families that traditionally have been invisible and underserved.

The program continues to train and help parents to preserve their families by offering a 10 week series of workshops which focus on appropriate discipline, custody issues, nutrition, domestic violence and housing topics (the pictures in this article were taken during a graduation ceremony for this course). In addition to the informational workshops, the program coordinator also conducts supervised visits with the parent and child, and assists in the reunification process. The parent coaching we offer is unique to Sinergia.

The “We Are Parents Too” has also formalized a parent support group for parents with developmental disabilities. This support group is especially important for the participants who have lost custody of their children, since the separation can often be traumatic, confusing and distressing. The support group helps parents to become self-advocates, gain insight into their own behavior and establish a network. Studies report that 90% of parents with disabilities are socially isolated.  Through the support group parents have an opportunity to meet others that are going through similar experiences.  Parents with developmental disabilities, especially those from low socio economic groups, often feel discriminated and judged when assumptions are made about their parenting abilities. A specially designed peer support group brings hope, increases socialization skills and the sharing of information, resources and advocacy strategies.

Isabel Malavet (pictured left in the background), the coordinator of the program, is a tireless advocate on behalf of participating parents and works with the Agency for Children’s Services, Family Court, the Community Partnership Program in East Harlem and the Parent Advocates for the Child Welfare Organizing Project. For more information contact 212-643-2840.

Monday, December 6, 2010

MNN, CCCADI and Aprendes: Making Their Mark in El Barrio

Three organizations will soon bring much needed services to El Barrio. The Aprendes Foundation is a philanthropic organization dedicated to community engagement and education, strategic partnerships, fundraising and critical interventions for East Harlem and the Bronx. They help organize charter schools and support communities that want to take control of their public education. Aprendes president Tony Lopez (photo left) says they are currently submitting an application for a proposed community grown charter school opening in September 2011.

Founded in 1992, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) offers Manhattan residents the ability to create and submit their own videos for air on four Public Access cable TV stations, potentially reaching 620,000 viewers. MNN offers free training and certification classes in video production, editing and broadcasting to Manhattan residents. According to Zenaida Mendez (photo right), who is in charge of Community Outreach & Media Services, this year they trained 11,000 people, 300 of them youths. Their Youth by Youth Media program trains young people with skills they can use to make money, and she says a control room operator can earn around $60,000 a year.

MNN purchased a firehouse on 104th Street between Lexington & 3rd Avenue, turning a building which had been empty for 18 years from an eyesore to a cutting edge facility with 9000 square feet of open multi purpose space that will help break the digital divide in Spanish Harlem.

The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute started 34 years ago as a research project and has been awarded a firehouse on 125th Street. "We're in the process of phasing in and should be completed by May 2013," says Director Martha Moreno Vega. "It will be a state of the art cultural center for use by the community. We are cultivating various projects, among them "Mi Querido Barrio," and its accompanying cultural tourism and public campaign. As part of that we are training young people on how to lead a non profit organization. Another project is "University Without Walls", for young people to acquire an arts degree online," she added.

Recap of Community Educational Forum

Sinergia was very pleased to host a Community Educational Forum on December 1, 2010 at our Metropolitan Parent Center. Community leaders, parents, and stakeholders interested in advancing the academic, employment and career achievements of young people were invited to share information and discuss possible solutions to deal with the educational inequities that impact the lives of Latino children and youth. In one of the heaviest downpours of the year we had an amazing turnout of about twenty six people.

Although Sinergia did not receive the Promise Neighborhood grant this year, we are committed to pursuing collaborations and strategies that will reduce the overall achievement gap between East Harlem children and youth and those residing in more affluent communities. This forum was just one of our  efforts to engage the community in improving the quality of life of children and youth throughout their life span and advancing efforts for groups to work together to build and strengthen El Barrio. 

Juan Cartagena from the Community Service Society study presented a new of Latino Youth in New York City, which was very propitious to the meeting's agenda. The report, which was recently featured in the New York Times, focuses on youth from 16-24 years in New York City and the trends in school, work and income of this group. The statistics are sobering:

  • Latinos make up the largest portion 33% of the age groups of children (fewer than 16 years of age) and youth (ages 16-24).
  • Puerto Ricans, especially males, are the most disadvantaged youth group in New York City, with rates of school enrollment, educational attainment, and employment lower than any comparable group, including black males.
  • Young Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are the two largest Latino subgroups and have extremely low rates of employment
  • Latino youth live in poor households (those with annual earnings of $18,000 for a family of three) more than any other ethnic group.
  • Puerto Ricans face the greatest challenges of all youth sub-groups, despite the fact that they are overwhelming born in New York City.

Dr. Marta Moreno VegaDr. Martha Moreno Vega, Director of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, stated that the sad truth is that many small to midsized nonprofits have and will be shut down. "The infrastructure that was built is getting decimated and in the absence of action our institutions will continue to erode. We need leadership to give voice to these inequities," she added.

The last agenda item of the meeting was a discussion of next steps to move the conversation along. They include:
  • Developing a different narrative to deal with the new and grim realities affecting our students, families and communities.
  • Broadcasting future community forums through the Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
  • Inviting public and elected officials to the forums.
  • Soliciting greater youth participation from the communities we serve and getting their perspectives.
  • Fostering greater parent engagement in the educational status of young people, and helping them understand the data and outcomes that affect their children's future.
  • Community organizing, community organizing, community organizing!
  • Greater use of internet and social media to share and disseminate information, studies, reports, data.
  • Demanding greater access, accountability and responsibility from media, particularly Spanish media, to expose the truth and tell the stories of children and families.
  • Creating coalitions to salvage small, vulnerable organizations and institutions that face extinction or reductions in vital services to our communities.
  • Expanding voter registration drives.
This Community Education Forum was an exciting and promising start to conversations dedicated to improving the academic performance and achievement of Latino and other minority students. If you would like to join our efforts please email us at information at

During the second part of the meeting we had three organizations who are deeply committed to making significant contributions to East Harlem gave presentations about their relocation plans to the neighborhood. See more below.