United Community Centers of East New York
Ana Aguirre is making the rounds through United Community Centers of East New York’s vibrantly painted building. Upstairs a group of preschoolers sit in a circle with a teacher, erupting in animal noises. Below, children pedal red tricycles across a multi-purpose room that will later host a meeting of local activists.
“Good afternoon Miss Ana!” the children chorus, greeting the executive director by name.
Aguirre is a familiar face all around these streets. She is the face of this organization whose roots bore deep into the earth here at the end of the 3 train.
For half a century, UCC has worked for social change in East New York. They offer day care, health and education programs, and immigrant services to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Then a decade ago, long before vegetables came to the White House lawn, they started East New York Farms to bring fresh food to an area bereft of grocery stores and quality produce.
In 2001, The Brooklyn Community Foundation was the first, and for many years the only, supporter of cultivating youth involvement in the farm project.
“They really believed in our youth internship,” said Aguirre. She thought it important, in a neighborhood where money and jobs are always lacking, to pay the youth for their time and commitment to the project. The Community Foundation agreed. “They were the only ones who said, ‘that makes sense,’” Aguirre recalls.
Years later, rows of carrots, beets, and sugar peas reach up from the earth across the half-acre plot adjacent to the Center. Each Saturday from June through November, residents come to buy lettuce and local honey at the market.
Between art performances put on by a local group and close-knit relationships among regulars, the program does more than make up for far-away grocery stores and wilted bodega produce. “It’s also the market as a social space,” Aguirre says.
Brooklyn Community Foundation has continued its support for the organization’s work, including a $35,000 grant this year for stipends for youth interns who run the farm and farmer’s market program and to support operating expenses like keeping employees paid. That includes Aguirre, who wears a tower of hats atop that of executive director.
In addition to running the building, fundraising, and health classes, Aguirre helps facilitate civics classes for those seeking citizenship. She stops one of the day care teachers in the hall whose parents are in the midst of applying.
"Are your parents coming later?” Aguirre asks. The woman says that her mother will be at the class, but her father has to work. “Tell him I want to see him next time,” Aguirre says.