When Juan Carlos Rojas landed in New York from Chile 25 years ago to build a new life, the kindness of Hell’s Kitchen’s residents helped him find his calling, turning the former banker into a devoted dementia caregiver.
Now, the Hell’s Kitchen local is paying it forward by giving some of the many new arrivals to the city bused from the southern border the same chance he had. Juan Carlos is offering free training in dementia care, giving a new wave of migrants the opportunity to find meaningful work in support of New York’s elders. His efforts are already bearing fruit, with dozens of migrants having completed the training and more signed up for future courses.
The program comes at a time of unprecedented focus on the scale of arrivals in the city, and in Hell’s Kitchen in particular. Over the past month, there have been protests and a stand-off outside The Watson Hotel on W57th Street when city authorities moved single male migrants from rooms in the hotel to mega-dormitories at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook, with many of the men returning from what they called an “ice box” and instead sleeping outside the Hell’s Kitchen hotel, before they were eventually moved away by the city.
Almost all seek asylum in the US, having come from countries like Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, recently hit by poverty and violence, and from Venezuela and Cuba, whose dictatorial regimes are seeing a wave of people fleeing.
The city has struggled to provide adequate housing, health, education, language and job training services to migrants, many of whom are temporarily housed in hotels around Hell’s Kitchen. Mayor Eric Adams has asked for federal funding to deal with an estimated 40,000 arrivals since last spring, when Republican Governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis began busing asylum seekers to Port Authority in a political power play.
Juan Carlos has stepped in on a much more personal scale. “When I came to the US, I left my work as a banker in Chile – that was my career,” he told W42ST, adding that he wasn’t sure where to start upon arriving in the US, but “you do what you have to do.”
The first friend he made was an 85-year-old woman in Manhattan Plaza. “She invited me to her 85th birthday with about 20 seniors, and after meeting them they hired me to help them — clean the windows, move furniture, little things here and there.” Through his work with Manhattan Plaza seniors, a social worker connected Juan Carlos with his first client suffering from Alzheimer’s.
That sparked a passion in Juan Carlos that inspired his life’s work and his new mission, to help recently-arrived immigrants find their purpose. With business partner Duane Bousfield, he now operates the JC Dementia Center – an Alzheimer’s and dementia-focused training company whose primary focus is large-scale university and healthcare facility training courses but which is now offering free certificate-based and Spanish language caregiver training for asylum seekers at the One Community Church space on W45th Street and between 8th and 9th Avenue.
The JC Dementia Center has held several workshops over the past few months, with plans for more. Over 40 migrants have completed the training, with more signing up for workshops. “We’re working to give people specific skills to care for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia so that they can find a job – because the state won’t provide this kind of education without a green card,” Juan Carlos said.
Recent participants like Olga Pinta — a licensed nurse and asylum seeker from Venezuela who arrived in September 2022 — said that receiving a US-based certificate was invaluable to pursuing work here, and working with Juan Carlos and the community of fellow migrants “was an honor.”
“This is a very important profession, and what is most important is that you have to have a vocation to practice it,” Olga said. “Juan Carlos was very specific – the training is theoretical as well as practical and it helped me to better understand the people who suffer from dementia, and see everything in a different way.”
Even though others called Olga “crazy” for re-doing the educational process she had already completed in her home country, “With education from a new country, you will be able to work,” she said. Olga is determined to continue her English studies and begin a new caregiver career in the US, hoping to become “the voice to call attention to others like her” and build new skills and community in her new home.
Training was what brought new life to Juan Carlos too. “I went to the Alzheimer’s Association to be trained, because I was still working on my language barrier,” he said. “But as I learned, I felt this passion for learning how to communicate and work with people with dementia.” He worked for other agencies and organizations for seven years before striking out on his own, studying to become a trainer in both English and Spanish as outreach to the Latino community.
When he saw the influx of recently arrived migrants, he began reaching out to contacts at the Skyline and other temporary migrant housing hotels in hopes of connecting with asylum seekers looking for job skills — who would likely encounter difficulty being hired without permanent resident documentation.
“When I saw the immigrants there, I saw myself,” Juan Carlos said. “I remembered the first time someone said ‘good morning’ to me here. I remembered the first time someone smiled at me. And how step by step little things like that make you feel like you belong here. I wanted to pay it forward to others, because I remember what it was like when I was looking to get started.”
Pastor Chris Mills, who hosts the training at the One Community Church said: “We feel particularly called to people that call Hell’s Kitchen home. And we recognize that there are now several hundred, if not thousands of new neighbors here in Hell’s Kitchen after seeking asylum. I think we have just begun scratching the surface of meeting the needs and we are learning along the way of how to care for this population.”
He added, “It’s not as simple as providing a coat and thinking things are going to be OK — when it comes to meeting some of these tangible needs, I know that we don’t have all the answers and so it’s good to collaborate with people and organizations that care. We’re trying to figure out different creative ways that we can continue to meet the complex needs amongst the asylum-seeking population.”
Juan Carlos’ JC Dementia partner Duane added, “I hope there’s a shift for people – that they don’t see our new neighbors as a problem, but rather as an opportunity for them to interact with others who add value – [the migrants] have so much value as people and deserve the dignity of work, and would be a welcome value to the community. It really is about standing in the gap and helping people meet their needs.”
Pastor Mills, Juan Carlos and Duane are working to build a network of support for migrants in the Hell’s Kitchen community, having connected with other grassroots support groups like Team TLC, a volunteer-based organization that provides essential supplies to asylum seekers arriving at Port Authority.
While several of the training program graduates have managed to get work with their newfound skills, Juan Carlos believes direct networking within the Hell’s Kitchen community is the most effective way to help migrants find jobs as they sort out immigration paperwork. “I tried to contact several agencies, but they all need social security numbers,” he said, adding that the migrants he’s connected with “are trained and ready to work” with the right opportunity.
“Employment is so low and we need more caregivers,” added Duane. “The migrants don’t have the connection and the network that they had back home. By working with them, you’re giving them the opportunity to be themselves again,” said Juan Carlos.
And for Juan Carlos, working with migrants has given him “a new peace of mind. I was meeting with a support group and something we all connected with is that it really gave us a sense of peace to be with each other, having similar cultural backgrounds. We all talked about what we miss from our home country, and it’s the humanity and the warmth of family,” he said. “When I talk to these people, I see myself. Somebody gave me the opportunity to be where I am, and I’m so grateful to pay it forward.”
For more information on the JC Dementia Center caregiver training workshops, check out their Instagram.