The Nonprofit 1 Percent

Even the do-gooders can seem blind to their own excess

The main room is a bright, pleasant space with a lot of sunlight. For many of the 30 to 50 people found here on any given day, this is the primary point of human contact in their lives.

The choir met and performed here for the last time on February 8 in a gospel concert presented for Black History Month. Moran showed up in a black evening gown.

"I want this to be special for them," Moran said. "I'll go home and cry later."

Maria Claro, a former aide who had been laid off, comforts a resident 
moved to tears by the choir’s final concert.
Arlene Gottfried
Maria Claro, a former aide who had been laid off, comforts a resident moved to tears by the choir’s final concert.
Debbie Moran hugs Gwen Lee after they performed together for the last time.
Arlene Gottfried
Debbie Moran hugs Gwen Lee after they performed together for the last time.

It was obvious that the GuildCare choir is a real gospel choir, but there were no matching robes. The women did take special care with what they wore, even though many of them are blind (like much of their audience).

There was also no slick choreography. When they marched in singing "This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made," the members were bumping into one another and shaking homemade pom-poms made of crepe paper and pipe cleaners.

The music was not perfect, but that only made it feel more authentic. Like the blues, these songs were rough and rich with the texture of lived experience.

Rachel Gonzalez, a Hispanic singer who lost some independent mobility with the recent death of her Seeing Eye dog, recited a five-minute poem she had written from memory. Dorothy Mathis, an African American woman who suffers from dementia, sang "Amazing Grace." It visibly appeared to shock the staff.

"Dorothy has days where she can't remember the difference between apple juice and orange juice," Moran said. "And there she is singing all four verses of 'Amazing Grace!'"

Daniela Luna belted out "Confidence in You" in Spanish.

An old man started to weep during "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," and Maria Claro held him. The music touches not just the singers, the audience, and the staff, but also the former staff.

After the performance, Gonzalez talked about her life, which started in Brooklyn and led her to Yonkers. She might have lost her one and only service animal, but not her sense of humor. She said she'd had a reporter "checked out" for his age and appearance.

"What? You think blind people don't care about what someone looks like?" she asked with mock surprise. "The blind men do it all the time! They'll be talking to a woman for the first time, and as soon as she goes away, they'll be asking their sighted friends: 'She pretty? What's her rack like?'

"Why can't blind women do this, too?" she asked playfully.

Lunch was served by the professional staff of the Guild and often included clock-based instructions: "You've got chicken at 12 o'clock, collard greens at three, spiced yams at six."

Before lunch was over, an announcement was made about upcoming activities. The following day, in the kind of room where choir practice or music therapy used to happen, a staff member announces without irony that there will be a lecture on "Medicaid and the federal deficit."

During cleanup, Debbie Moran, who is technically no longer working here, had changed out of her nice dress into casual clothes and was helping others with their plates.

"Can't we just get rid of plastic cups instead of getting rid of Debbie?" someone asked.

But it's the presence of Claro helping out with these tasks that's the strangest of all.

After all, she'd already been laid off a couple weeks earlier.

"They are mi gente, my people," Claro says later. "I was there because I told them I'd always be there for them. They asked me to come to their concert, so I came."

Claro had worked as an aide. She cleaned toilets and scrubbed floors and helped serve lunch. But she also translated for clients, helping them fill out forms and "giving people that personal touch—a hug or a kiss when someone needed it."

Claro worked at the Guild for more than a dozen years, first at the nursing home until it closed before moving to the day center. When she learned her full-time position was being eliminated, she was given a couple of choices, including a total layoff.

"They offered me a job downtown" in the administrative office, Claro says. But that involved "a typing test" she seemed nervous about and no contact with "mi gente," and it also meant, because of union seniority, "I would have bumped someone else off of their job, and I didn't feel right about that. I don't have kids. I don't have a mortgage. How could I make someone else lose their job who might have those things?"

Claro was also offered a part-time job at the day center, but one where she would not have been working with people. "I'd have just been cleaning," and she would have had to pay $800 a month for her insurance, meaning she'd earn "more on unemployment."

She took the layoff.

"I lost a job, but they lost a person who cared about them," Claro says. "And Dr. Morse doesn't have the faintest idea of the damage he did to those clients."

Despite this, Claro has nothing but kind words to say about Joan Clark, the manager of the center. "She's in a hard place," she says.

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