Vol. 17, No. 22

Nov. 4 - 17,  2004


25 Years of Hope and Help at Tolentine Zeiser


Sister Margaret McDermott’s office isn’t easy to find. 

Through the maze of ESL classes and senior programs, up the stairs from the sprawling daycare center, McDermott directs Tolentine Zeiser Community Life Center from a small space more devoted to supplies than self-promotion. But those priorities — putting good work above self — are the essence of what drives McDermott and her staff to continuously better the lives of residents of University Heights, and beyond. 

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Tolentine Zeiser has helped improve the lives of thousands of individuals and families (Tolentine estimates 2,000 visits daily). Mixing traditional social services and some unique offerings, the Andrews Avenue facility serves everyone from Cambodian refugees to homeless mothers.

“All our programs rose out of the needs that we saw here over the past 25 years,” said McDermott, the Center’s executive director and its founder.

McDermott’s devotion to the Tolentine community was sown early. She attended St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church’s high school, and was moved by the piety of her teachers. 

“I wanted to be like them,” said McDermott, 62, who became a Dominican nun herself. 

Tolentine’s pastor and McDermott’s former classmate, Father Michael Sullivan, invited McDermott to return to her old neighborhood in 1978. With attendance dwindling and the area struggling economically, the church could no longer afford to conduct community services. “There were new needs creeping up that weren’t here before,” said McDermott, who grew up in the area in a large Irish family.

In 1981, the Tolentine Zeiser Senior Center opened, and was soon followed by a summer camp, youth center, daycare program, and food pantry. McDermott had no formal social work training, but her unwavering conviction and determination compensated for that. “I came here to work and the Lord blessed me,” she said. 

Others quickly followed, and Tolentine expanded into a constellation of services. One of its flagship programs, St. Rita’s Center for Immigrant and Refugee Services, was founded in 1983 to aid the area’s growing Vietnamese and Cambodian communities. 

Sister Theresa Angelo Girolamo remembers when she and Sister Jean Marshall, St. Rita’s founder, would rescue refugees stranded at the airports. “We used to call it ‘refugee running,’” said Girolamo, a Bronx native.

St. Rita’s provides ESL classes, legal services, and employment counseling for an annual 12,000 immigrants of all nationalities. “They are very good for my life,” said Hata Haxha, an Albanian immigrant who lives on Webb Avenue, about St. Rita’s. 

Every inch of the cozy two-floor facility is occupied with classes for adults or daycare for their children. “We learn so much here,” said Orita Mici, whose ESL class includes fellow Albanians along with Hispanic, Asian, Ethiopian and Arab immigrants. 

St. Rita’s also provides off-site counseling, and just finished a successful initiative with Bosnian refugees in Queens. “We helped them so much that they are now self-sufficient,” Girolamo said.

Helping people help themselves, the way McDermott frequently describes her work, is exactly what Tolentine strives to do. Siena House, a 27-room women’s shelter, began in 1990 to give clients a place to get back on their feet.

“They couldn’t focus on our [GED program] because of the turmoil in their lives,” said Sister Cecelia Byrnes, who oversees the facility with founder Sister Mary Doris.

Located in a former convent on 168th Street, Siena House and Tolentine’s other transitional facilities help residents find permanent living situations. Eleanor, a Siena resident for four months, just found an apartment last week. “I’ll be leaving soon,” she said proudly while feeding her son in the cheery cafeteria.

But many Tolentine staff and participants gladly never leave. Shelley Parkin enrolled her daughters in Tolentine’s daycare when it first opened, and later took a job at the school. Making her way up the ranks, and going back to school with McDermott’s encouragement, Parkin now manages Tolentine’s books. “My kids grew up here of course,” said Parkin, a former University Heights resident. “But I grew up here, too.”

Tolentine employs about 110 people, many of whom are from the neighborhood. One of McDermott’s proudest accomplishments is watching her staff develop personally, and her employees seem to have a similar affection for her and each other.

“I enjoy it like a family,” said Davin Hun, a Cambodian immigrant and long-time social worker at St. Rita’s.

But, as in every family, there are struggles. Many of Tolentine’s 10 sisters are getting older, and Marshall is in poor health. They are a relatively young multi-service center, and still lack a full-time fundraiser.

While Tolentine’s $4.5 million budget might seem substantial, keeping the bank account full enough to support all the programming is always a challenge. “The only thing we don’t have is money,” said Girolamo after listing St. Rita’s extensive services.

Tolentine held an anniversary fundraiser last Friday, and McDermott counted over 200 RSVPs earlier in the week. Many of those attending are from the extended network of staff and participants. “Of course, my kids are coming,” Parkin said.

McDermott, who lives in Tolentine’s convent, says it is her dedication to the staff, community and God that has kept her going all the years — and will for the foreseeable future. 

“I belong to a religious community,” she said. “We don’t retire.”

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