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In 1977, Father George Moore converted the basement of St. Malachy’s Church (commonly known as the “Actor’s Chapel”) into a kitchen to feed the elderly of the Hell’s Kitchen and Broadway communities. Forty-five years later, Encore Community Services continues his mission on the west side.
We joined Encore’s Executive Director Jeremy Kaplan at the invitation of local council member Erik Bottcher (who was helping with deliveries for a morning) to hear about their current work.
“We’ve been here right in this space for almost 45 years. The meal program has grown steadily over those years. We started off producing a couple of hundred meals a day at the beginning and now we’re doing about 500,000 a year,” said Kaplan, who took over the leading role in the organization just over 3 years ago.
“We’re delivering about 1,200 to 1,400 meals a day. We have routes all the way from 14th Street to 120th Street that get loaded up into vans and then dispatched up and down the west side. Routes that are within about five blocks or so are walking routes,” explained Kaplan. “Our commercial-grade kitchen is cooking around 10,000 meals a week.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Encore rose to the challenge. “There were hundreds and hundreds of people who needed food and were shuttered inside. This was before the city figured out their Get Food NYC plan,” said Kaplan, recalling how the neighborhood came out to help. “It was businesses. It was the theatrical unions. I mean, they came out in mass when the theaters closed. They just showed up with their own cars and loaded up.”
At that time Kaplan and Volunteer Manager Jennifer Asquino were the only staff not suffering from COVID. “Jen and I were the only two that weren’t sick. So it was just us and a couple of hundred volunteers from the neighborhood, but we got it done. It was pretty remarkable. Then we saw a dip in volunteer numbers, it started to become a challenge. Where we would normally get pre-pandemic maybe 20 volunteers a day, we were struggling to get four or five a day.”
The volunteer situation has started to improve, but with the slow return of office workers in midtown, they are still keen to find new people. When the weather changes, like the recent snow, they have an “SOS list of volunteers” on standby. They also try to get as many meals out the day before a snowstorm. These days many meals arrive ready to freeze. “We did a survey and so many of our people have microwaves now,” said Kaplan.
On the day we followed the deliveries, councilmember Bottcher was volunteering on a Hell’s Kitchen walking route with COO Judith Castillo. Kaplan and Castillo recalled how they had first met Bottcher after a major incident that closed down Encore.
“It was right after the blackout in July 2019, it was like a perfect storm of events — a circuit blew, three or four things happened at once and there ended up being a carbon monoxide leak. Our center was packed with seniors, staff and volunteers. Judy happened to have been there and she saw people becoming faint and she hit the alarm,” said Kaplan.
Castillo recalled: “I just said everybody out. I thought maybe it was Legionaire’s Disease (which was going around at the time). I just thought ‘this is weird’. So I got everybody out.”
Kaplan praised her actions: “She saved like 200 lives. Then as you can imagine, there were fire trucks down the block and around the corner, it was crazy. Nobody was hurt, a few people had to go to the hospital and check their oxygen. The aftermath of that was that we couldn’t reopen until we figured out exactly what the source of the leak was and that it was fixed.”
This is where Bottcher came to the rescue. “In order to reopen, we needed the approval of everybody and their mother. We needed the fire department, ConEd, the Department of Buildings, the Department for the Aging, the Department of Health. There were like 10 agencies. I thought that we would be closed forever. I just couldn’t imagine how we were going get all of these agencies to sign off. I called Corey Johnson’s office and got hold of Erik, who was his Chief of Staff at the time. He just said: ‘okay, let me put together a conference call’ and Erik put together a conference call of around 10 commissioners, assistant commissioners, out all of these agencies and he had me on the call and he said to them ‘Encore have thousands of people that they help and we have got to get their center back open’.”
Erik made it happen, “We were open in three weeks. I can’t even tell you how incredible that was,” said Kaplan.
Bottcher continues to be a supporter as he takes on his new role. “From home-delivered meals and wellness checks to emergency pantries and case management, Encore Community Services is an invaluable resource for our aging communities. I look forward to working as Council Member to support their work because Encore supports those who need it most,” he said.
As well as their commitment to food, they have two residential buildings in the area. “One is across the street, Encore 49. It’s the oldest SRO [single room occupancy housing] in New York city. The oldest by contract age, oldest building itself — and by the average age of the people who live there,” said Kaplan. Encore 49 is in the former Markwell Hotel and is a residence created in 1987 for 91 homeless elderly people.
The other building, Encore West Residences, is on 10th Avenue between W51/52nd Streets and is home to 96 low-income seniors.
Finally, back to a little of that history. The chapel on W49th Street west of 8th Avenue has always been a pivotal place in the entertainment and Broadway community. It inspired the 1944 Oscar-winning movie Going My Way with Bing Crosby and hosted the funerals of Tennessee Williams and Rudolph Valentino, as well as the wedding of Douglas Fairbanks Jr to Joan Crawford.
Father Moore passed away in 1991. The night before he died, the American Theater Wing voted to award him a special Tony in honor of his work in the theatrical community for the past 14 years. His work continued for many years under the leadership of Sister Lillian McNamara and Sister Elizabeth Hasselt to provide food, socialization and support for the elderly of the Hell’s Kitchen and Broadway communities. Since then, Encore has earned the reputation as “Broadway’s Longest Running Act of Loving Care.”
You can learn more about Encore Community Services work and how you can help by volunteering or donating at www.encorenyc.org