Services in the Streets

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Two days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, nothing could comfort Sasha Cardona, 11. She wept as her 5-year-old brother played and her pregnant mother stood by in the plaza outside St. Athanasius Church in the Longwood section of the Bronx. A local television station had been reporting that her father José, a clerk at Morgan Stanley, had called 911 to say he was trapped in the ruined basement of the World Trade Center. “The last call, all he said was that he couldn’t breathe, to help him fast,” said Sasha’s cousin Marisel Castillo, 16, as Sasha leaned heavily against her. “We haven’t heard anything since this morning.”

At a candlelight vigil organized by Casita Maria, a settlement house on Simpson Avenue, speakers tried to offer comfort and hope as a solemn crowd of some 300 local residents flooded into the street and onto the opposite sidewalk. Children and grandparents leaned on their elbows in apartment building windows above and watched while American and Puerto Rican flags flutter in the wind. It was the first time in its 67-year history that Casita Maria veered from its regular services of counseling and tutoring in the South Bronx to lead local residents in a solemn march through the streets.

“Now you have children who are fatherless or motherless,” says Sandra Flecha, senior caseworker and supervisor at Casita, and the vigil’s organizer. “If it’s a single mother, now what’s going to happen to the children? We’re trying to be there for them.” She found herself scrambling to put distraught New Yorkers in touch with religious leaders for comfort. Her second priority: easing local residents’ anxieties so that they can resume the routines of their daily lives. Some mothers and grandmothers are intensely worried that their boys might be drafted, she says; others fear future terrorist attacks or even the end of the world. In her warm and informal way, she tells them a draft is unlikely, officials are working hard to thwart new attacks, and rumors of eerie predictions by Nostradamus are a hoax.

City Councilmember and Bronx Borough President candidate Adolfo Carrion, Jr., who led the crowd in singing God Bless America, called Casita’s work “absolutely critical” in meeting residents’ emotional and practical needs. That day, the focus of Sasha’s family was on whether Jose will survive. But soon, one congregant predicted, the family could face more practical concerns, like steering away from homelessness.

“It’s a lot of Spanish families here, we all are on the lower end of the income level,” says Carlos Munoz, a highway inspector and Longwood resident. He nodded toward the church as hundreds of local residents spilled out into the street. “You know at least one of them is at that edge.”