The holiday season is traditionally a time for celebration and gift giving. But for New Yorkers facing dire health, financial or other challenges, life is far from merry. For 100 years, The New York Times has published some of these hard-luck stories and invited readers to contribute money to help.
The seed for the Neediest Cases Fund was planted with a small, seemingly random act.
According to Michael Golden, who oversees the fund today, publisher Arthur Ochs was walking off a heavy holiday meal, in December 1911, when a stranger approached and politely asked for a handout. Ochs gave him a dollar and a job prospect.
"And then, as he walked away, he thought, ‘The end of the year is a traditional time for gift giving and a lot of good spirit. Perhaps the newspaper could do something on a grander scale.’ And that gave rise to the first Neediest Cases drive.”
A century later, the Neediest Cases Fund still helps people like Charles Smith, a client at Brooklyn Community Services, one of seven social service agencies the fund works with.
In 2008, Smith had a good job and was able to support his aging mother and young son. But within a year, Smith was diagnosed with cancer and forced to quit his job to undergo treatment. Without health insurance and nearly penniless, Smith and his son moved in with his mom, who soon developed a terminal illness.
“When I began to get well, my mother passed away,” says Smith. “That was devastating as well. She was an anchor. It was traumatic going through it - the nightmares, the getting up in the middle of the night, talking cold showers, just to try to get myself together.”
Smith turned to Brooklyn Community Services, which treated him for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and offered family counseling for him and his son - all subsidized by funds from Neediest Cases.
The Neediest Cases Fund also helped pay for counseling and incidental living expenses for Garvin Henry, 35, who has suffered from mental illness most of his life.
“I’ve been having hard times in my life,” Henry recalls. “I was breaking down with depression, stress and anger.”
Yet Henry has always excelled in making art. The fund subsidized an art therapy class for Henry and other challenged adults. It was a structured way for them to explore their feelings while playing to their strengths.
“I did my work also and they did their work and I am happy for myself and everybody else. This is like the biggest stepping stone for us to use to our advantage. It means a lot to me, a lot to them.”
The Cordis family was hit with more than their share of troubles. When family patriarch died suddenly in 2006, his wife suffered a nervous breakdown and is still unable to work. That left her teenage daughters, Judy and Christina, to fend for themselves and care for their younger brother David. Soon the family was living in a shelter.
With Neediest Cases funds, they received family counseling. Judy says the fund also gave David the money he needed for his eighth grade prom, which was a huge morale booster.
“I would have felt horrible if he wasn’t able to do that. I would have felt like that’s something else we were unable to give him as his older sisters.”
The prom money was the start of a positive trend. Catholic Charities of America, another Times Neediest Cases Fund agency, helped the family sort out its immigration problems. It now seems American citizenship is on its way, and with it, the right to work, and leave the shelter.
The future once looked bright for Carolina Martinez. She had two young sons, a husband, good health and a dream of going to college and nursing school. But within one year, her father died, her husband left her, her schoolwork began to suffer, she developed a near fatal heart condition, her longtime apartment building was bought by developers, and she was evicted, with no money for moving expenses.
“And then I said ‘What now?’ So I said, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, it’s all in your hands. I have no other way. I have no one else to ask.’”
Within days, the Shorefront Y, a network agency of the UJA Federation of New York, told Martinez that the Neediest Cases Fund would cover her moving expenses. Today, back in college and on her way to nursing school, she intends to give back the help she has received by helping others. “Absolutely. At the end of the tunnel, there is light.”
The New York Times spotlights the tangible results of helping others, encouraging continued kindness. The dollar amount of donations to the Neediest Cases Fund has decreased recently, but the number of people contributing to it continues to rise.