A Thanksgiving NYC Honor Roll for Hard Times

By every measure, we are in for a long, hard winter, one that has already turned punishingly cold on the streets, in City Hall, and in Albany. It is colder yet for thousands suddenly out of work, sucked under by Wall Street's grasping greed. Others, who never knew the security of a decent, steady job even before this savage downturn, face the severing of government lifelines as politicians scramble to slice their budgets, starting from the bottom up.

All of which is good reason to take a moment to give thanks to those in the city's trenches who have quietly gone about the tough, everyday work of remedying inequality, as well as those who have stood tall against abuses of power. Their deeds ennoble this city more than a trainload of the fatuous celebrities who soak up so much of the media's attentions. Late Voice writer Jack Newfield began this Thanksgiving tradition in 1976, in the depths of the city's last fiscal crisis, a time when the powerbrokers were again working overtime to remake New York in their own image. Newfield called his honor roll an ode to "heroes and heroines, the sung, and the unsung." Here are just a few of the many New Yorkers who deserve a round of such applause.

Eight years before Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School with a vague yearning to do some good in the world, another young African-American with a brand-new Harvard Law degree in his pocket moved to Harlem. James O'Neal knew that he wanted to help high school students learn about the law and prepare for college. In 1983, O'Neal launched Legal Outreach, a program that today boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate (the citywide rate is 52 percent). Two-thirds of its students have won admission to top colleges. A whopping 14 percent have gone on to law school—a group that may include the next Barack Obama.

Andy Scherer is another lawyer making a daily difference. Scherer has spent 30 years at Legal Services of New York. He started in the late '70s representing tenants in the Bronx Housing Court, a true trial by fire because arson was a frequent eviction tool. He's served as the program's executive director since 2001, battling to ensure that New Yorkers faced with loss of homes, income, and their families don't go without adequate legal representation.

Former city deputy budget director Barbara Turk is not only one of the smartest ex–city officials, but she's also one of the few to put her brains and talent into neighborhood improvement, rather than high-paid private employment. When the Brooklyn YWCA on Atlantic Avenue fell on hard times a few years ago, Turk stepped in to help turn it around. Today, Turk is a roving expert troubleshooter for Community Resource Exchange, which assists local grassroots organizations.

Ana Aguirre, a dedicated health educator, directs one of the city's best-kept secrets: United Community Centers, in Brooklyn's East New York. In the midst of one of New York's toughest neighborhoods, UCC runs a successful day care and after-school program, as well as an astonishing urban farm that teaches local youngsters how healthy food is grown and offers affordable and nutritious produce for residents.

Alex Truesdell runs an extraordinary program called Adaptive Design, which uses common, everyday materials like cardboard and plastic to fashion pricelessly effective, custom-made devices to assist children with severe physical disabilities. In a society that squanders billions on overpriced medical equipment, her West Side workshop produces daily small wonders at low cost, while fighting a constant battle for its own funding.

Since the '70s, public-health advocate Judy Wessler has been on an often lonely mission to defend the city's magnificent chain of public hospitals and clinics, while also making them accountable to those they serve. Wessler's Commission on the Public's Health System goes to bat for the 1.6 million New Yorkers without health insurance and is a vigilant watchdog on government to ensure adequate funding.

The Lower East Side has a long history of great organizers, and one of the inheritors of that tradition is Damaris Reyes, leader of the housing- and tenant-assistance group GOLES—Good Old Lower East Side. Reyes lives in Baruch Houses, the sprawling public-housing project by the FDR Drive, where she was born and raised. She regularly fights evictions on behalf of those living in public housing and those battling with private landlords. She has also battled for wage justice, helping to win a $1.4 million settlement this year for employees cheated by the downtown apparel retailer Yellow Rat Bastard.

A few years ago, an old friend named John DeWind grew tired of teaching college literature and went looking for tougher challenges. He found them in Brooklyn's public high schools, where his Comprehensive English Preparation Project offers one of the few independent creative-writing programs available. The program runs on a shoestring, yet produces and publishes remarkable prose and poetry from youths eager to find and stretch their own literary muscles.

Forty years after its founding by theater press agent and public citizen extraordinaire David Rothenberg, the Fortune Society remains one of the only institutions offering a hand up to ex-convicts trying to reintegrate into society. Directors JoAnne Page and Glenn Martin oversee a network of housing, incarceration alternatives, and education. It's why the state's corrections commissioner said recently he "could use 2,000" groups like it.

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