Good Neighbors: Joe Montano of University Community Social Services
This week Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, invites us in, or rather out, to meet the Lower East Side communities she works with every day:
Since 1988, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has scoured the neighborhood, the country and the world to connect the stories of 97 Orchard Street to the wider human experience of immigration. As we build the 103 Orchard Street exhibit discussing the second half of the 20th century, we have also had new opportunities for research and collaboration. In my role as Community Outreach Coordinator, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with people in the Lower East Side and beyond who work with and for the everyday communities our Museum focuses on. It’s been really fun to meet them, learn about what inspires them, and get to examine the many ways our New York City community connects. In this new series, Good Neighbors, I will be profiling some of our community partners all over New York City and the work that they do.
First up is Joe Montano, who is a social worker at our neighborhood organization, University Community Social Services, and helps manage their food security project, the Meatloaf Kitchen.
Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does.University Community Soup Kitchen, established in 1982, became University Community Social Services in 1997, and the name change is telling. We are not only an emergency food program, but we have expanded and in the past 15 years we have been providing social services, computer user support, pantry distribution, clothing distribution as well as hosting health and wellness days where guests can get a doctor’s check-up, a dental check-up and eye exams. We manage to do all of this with a completely volunteer staff for over 30 years.
What inspired you to get involved in the lives of your neighbors?I had an opportunity in October of 1989 to visit Washington, DC. My former high school teacher had switched careers and was now a social worker in the District at a place calledSOME: So Others Might Eat. I traveled to visit him and volunteered where he was working. I was playing checkers with one of the homeless clients and said to myself, I need to do this when I return to New York. By December of the same year, I was a weekly volunteer at University Community Soup Kitchen.
Where are you (or your family) from?
I was born in Nassau County, New York and raised in Queens. My parents were both born in the United States, my father in Astoria and my mother in Brooklyn. My dad’s parents emigrated from Pietrapertosa, (near Potenza), Italy around 1928 and my mother’s parents were born in the United States. My maternal grandfather whose parents were from Patti, Sicily, was raised in the East Village at East 13th Street and Avenue A. My maternal grandmother was born on Mulberry Street, delivered by a midwife. Her parents came from Colarmele (father) and Introdacqua (mother), (in Abbruzzo Province) and were married in Transfiguration Church on Mott Street. My maternal great-great grandfather, (the father of the bride at The Transfiguration Church marriage), upon emigrating to the United States with his two children after the untimely death of his first wife, opened up a small Italian Restaurant on Mulberry Street. He would serve judges and lawyers from the courthouse located near Columbus Park during the day and bring the leftover food from his restaurant to Transfiguration Church to feed those who lined up at a breadline.
When did you first come to the Lower East Side?I’ve been told that my first trip to the Lower East Side was just before I was born, when my parents attended a wake at a Lower East Side funeral home, located across the street from where I would later volunteer! After that “first visit” I returned in 1989 to volunteer at what was then known as University Community Soup Kitchen.
What makes this neighborhood special?
So many things do. First, it was the place I fell in love. I came to the kitchen and met so many wonderful guests and volunteers. I know it sounds cliché but it was a life-changing experience for me. To this very day, I emerge from the subway at 2nd Avenue feeling as if I have just taken a dive into a wonderfully refreshing pool or sea. I at once feel energized, rejuvenated, stress-free and at home. Second, it is a place of my maternal family roots. I walk streets where my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and at least one great-great grandparent walked. Thirdly, it is a neighborhood which embodies the history of those who walked these streets, who faced seemingly insurmountable odds both here and abroad and yet overcame those odds to create a community, not just of survivors, but one of peaceful strength and long-lasting endurance. A neighborhood that attests to the indomitable human spirit!
— Posted by Emily Gallagher,Community Outreach Coordinator