Commonpoint Queens shifts to meet evolving community needs
by Benjamin Fang
Oct 16, 2020 | 934 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For seven weeks this summer, young participants in Commonpoint Queens’s summer camp program explored the outdoors at a 47-acre urban farm in Queens.

Commonpoint Queens, the social services organization that emerged from the merger of the Samuel Field Y and the Central Queens Y, partnered with the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park for the unique camp experience.

Participants went on nature walks, took part in scavenger hunts and learned about farming. They also enjoyed other programming such as arts and crafts, sports, theme days and games.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the summer program at the Queens County Farm Museum was just one of several camps run by Commonpoint Queens this year. Although their programs were scaled down, the agency found creative ways to keep kids engaged and active.

“It was a relatively smooth summer,” said Danielle Ellman, CEO of Commonpoint Queens, who noted that they ran other camps in Bay Terrace, Little Neck and even on Long Island. “We found that a lot of families wanted their kids in some type of routine. We found more options where we offered more programming in more locations.”

When the COVID-19 crisis struck back in March, Ellman said she realized organizations like hers would have to “think strategically and make partnerships” to survive. In mid-spring, the agency reached out to the farm museum to ask about a possible collaboration.

“They had this unbelievable asset with lots of outdoor space and educators, we had kids, community and the reach,” she said. “If we came together and coexisted, we could build a nice program together.”

That type of partnership and creativity was key for Commonpoint Queens to continue fulfilling its broad mission of meeting the evolving needs of the community, regardless of age, ability or background.

For example, when the pandemic hit, the agency recognized that child care for essential workers would be important. Commonpoint Queens converted its Samuel Field Center in Little Neck and Central Queens facility in Forest Hills into emergency child care sites.

The students were given access to a computer lab, and staff helped guide them through remote learning.

“We leaned into that opportunity,” Ellman said. “How do we create a space for our agency to exist to meet this evolving need, which is bigger than any of us could imagine?”

Whether it was addressing food insecurity or mental health or the needs of seniors, Commonpoint Queens expanded and shifted its services to meet the moment.

Its food pantry and senior meal delivery service kept residents fed. The agency’s job assistance department helped people with job training and placement, navigating the unemployment process and enrolling in benefits. Its mental health clinic kept psychotherapy and tele-psychiatry sessions going virtually.

Even exercise classes, which in a typical year would have had 4,000 attendees, had over 15,000 virtual attendees, Ellman said. For older adults, the nonprofit is conducting tech training and giving iPads to seniors who are alone and isolated.

Commonpoint has also provided emergency cash assistance to undocumented and mixed-status families, which Ellman noted are often excuded from public resources.

“In Queens, so many people are one paycheck away from a crisis, we’ve seen that manifest,” she said. “The long-term impact of this is far from finished.”

Ellman credited her “tremendous team” for being open to thinking through how the agency can make a meaningful impact, even at the height of the pandemic.

Of course, she had to balance the health and safety of her team with the work they were doing to help frontline workers. Ellman said they thought about a “methodological way” to be transparent with staff on staying safe.

“It provided team members with a level of confidence that there was an open dialogue,” she said. “We are taking the responsibility of their health and safety as a guiding principle.”

The Commonpoint Queens CEO said she felt an enormous weight on her shoulders running the organization during the peak of COVID-19. She noted that the agency lost government contracts and businesses they were working with closed.

She had daily check-in calls with senior leadership, and weekly town halls with staff, with the goal of creating a “highway of communication” where team members could ask questions.

“I committed to honesty and transparency about things we knew and didn’t know,” Ellman said. “Under the magnifying lens of all of these employees whose livelihood is dependent on your decision making, it was definitely a challenge.”

Ellman is in her third year as CEO of Commonpoint Queens. She was the executive director of the Central Queens Y for seven years before the merger with the Samuel Field Y. She noted that when the organizations merged, they came up with a new name because they did not want participants to think one agency was subsuming the other.

“Doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, we are the ‘common point’ for you in the community,” Ellman said. “There is something for everyone here.”

She said the hardest part about merging is that both locations had their own organizational structure and culture. Ellman said she sought to honor that, but also create a unifying culture and respect at the same time.

“You have to be sensitive to the fact that when you make decisions, people feel you hear all sides,” she said. “We need to honor the legacy of both of them and we do that by involving the staff and community as much as possible in setting the direction and programming.”

For the foreseeable future, Commonpoint Queens still plans to support working families, children with after-school needs and seniors with virtual activities. Ellman said helping people get back to work, child care, unemployment benefits and legal services are just some of the issues they will focus on.

Her team is also creatively thinking through what can be done virtually and what can be done in person.

“We’ve had to be nimble to think about which services will be in higher demand, and constantly adapt to the fact that community appetite has changed and what people feel comfortable doing has changed,” she said. “We have to change what services we offer because the reality is that it’s just a new world.”

Still, Ellman said she’s proud of the quickness with which her staff reacted to the pandemic, and everything Commonpoint Queens continues to provide the borough.

“We had a talented team that responded quickly,” she added. “It’ll be the lifeblood of how this agency services communities for years to come.”
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