Jerome Michaux is a Frenchman who came to the United States as a young man around the time of the 9/11 disaster. At first he made his way in the fashion industry but found it hard going with the high pressure. He stuck with it, but as he says, it made his hair turn white. He is a soft spoken man who responds to kind treatment, and he believes that all people should be treated with kindness. Increasingly he had the feeling that he should be doing something else. Seven years ago he had a religious awakening and felt deeply the deaths of three of his grandparents over a period of four years. He was aware of an organization in France called Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly founded my Armand Marquiset, that took an interest in the lives of the elderly poor, visiting them to deliver food and flowers. The organization is “committed to relieving the isolation and loneliness among the elderly.” It offers “to people of good will the opportunity to join the elderly in friendship and the celebration of life.” This non-profit expanded to the United States, and Michaux thought about helping it to open in New York, which it did in 2016 first as a “friends' group” and then as “an expansion site.” He had some savings from his work and being a spiritual person, he asked god for a sign that this was something he should do. He got his sign. In going to a meeting with someone from the organization he three times encountered roses – he was given one on the street, he sat next to another person with a rose tattoo on the subway, and finally at the restaurant where the meeting took place there was a rose imprinted on his napkin. The Little Brothers logo is a red rose! Coincidence or divinity, Jerome's work has gone extraordinarily well. It would seem that it has three main elements – raising money and getting contributions of goods for distribution, enlisting volunteers, and reaching out through a grapevine of connections to find elderly people who would benefit from the program. To become part of the program a person must be 70 years or older with limited social contacts and few nearby family members.
In its simplest form the program involves sending out the volunteers to have visits with elderly people who would enjoy seeing a friendly face. However, growing old, particularly if one is isolated, can lead to one having numerous problems. Jerome has prepared a resource guide that gives information about, among other issues, housing, food, healthcare, social services, legal help and transportation. At a recent gathering was a volunteer named Sarah who regularly visits a woman from Brazil. It turned out this woman was being harassed by her landlord who wished to get her out of her apartment so that he could rent it at a higher rate. He was turning off her heat and electricity and refusing to renew her lease. Little Brothers got her legal representation and thereby negotiated a new lease. Unfortunately the harassment continues, and it may be necessary to take the landlord to court. Sarah has become her good friend and sees this woman on her own outside of the formal monthly visits. Also she has joined an adjunct group called the Friendly Visiting and Advocacy Program that pairs up volunteers with an elder to visit twice a month to build a full friendship.
I recently went on an organized visit just before Thanksgiving. A group of perhaps twenty people gathered at Bethany United Methodist Church on St. Johns Place near Albany. We paired off in twos, got a list of four or five people to visit, and gift bags for each one. Jerome made a speech giving some guidelines for the visits, especially needed as quite a few of the volunteers were doing this for the first time. My partner was Alisha, a warm and outgoing young woman from Jamaica, who had gone visiting before. We were driven by Mike to a building on New York Avenue specifically designed for the elderly. In the course of a few hours we visited four people (another did not feel up to a visit that day). We gave all of them the gift bags and had engaging conversations. We also gave gifts to caretakers if the elderly person had one. Alisha was particularly good at putting these people at their ease, and they all were delighted to see her, exchanging hugs and kisses and all kinds of confidences. In the course of our visits we leafed through an album of family photos, heard about a recent visit to the hospital, discussed how one might tell a care giver that one does not like to eat sardines, found out that a woman's husband had been an important social and political figure in Crown Heights, and always there was discussion about religion. In one case a woman over a hundred wondered why god had not yet brought her home to him.
It was a moving experience and wonderful to see how responsive these elderly women were (there were no men involved in this set of visits). For a very small investment of time one could give joy, pleasure, sympathy and friendship and get the same in return. And what a pleasure to meet Alisha, filled with energy, always responsive and supportive, someone who seemed unfailingly to hit the right note of humor, sympathy or concern. To find out more go to www.littlebrothersnyc.org and to get in touch to find out how to volunteer write to firstname.lastname@example.org. One must thank Jerome for bringing this wonderful organization to Brooklyn and wish him all the best, particularly that he be able to do this work full-time and be able to make a decent living doing so.