Covid Inspires a New Tradition: High School History Teacher Cooks for Dozens of Shelter Residents Every Week

Lisa Greenwald in her lobby at Christmastime.

By Lisa Kava

Lisa Greenwald, a public high school teacher and Upper West Sider, started a new tradition last spring. Every Wednesday she cooks and delivers meals, toys, clothing and toiletries to residents of The Ellington, a homeless shelter that houses women and children located on 111th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive.

The Ellington, which has the capacity to house 86 families, is staffed with social workers who provide education, counseling and assistance securing employment.

Greenwald teaches 10th and 11th grade history at Stuyvesant High School and lives across the street from The Ellington. Last spring, after all schools switched to remote learning, and once she felt settled into a new routine, Greenwald was overcome with a desire to help people who were struggling.

Greenwald’s cousin, who worked as an X-ray technician, died from Covid-19 after spending weeks without adequate PPE. Around this time, Greenwald learned about the rising food insecurity that many New Yorkers were suffering from as a result of the pandemic. She began to search for ways to make a difference.

“I felt safe teaching from home and wanted to model for my students and for my children what we do in a crisis. We step up. We don’t fall apart because there are people who are actually falling apart. If we have the privilege to be OK we should find a way to give to others rather than wallow in all that is frustrating and difficult,” said Greenwald, who recalled growing up on West 75th Street in the early 70’s amidst many SROs. “I had friends who would come over for lunch just to get fed. It made a lasting impression on me.”

Greenwald, who enjoys cooking and has regularly walked by The Ellington for years, figured “what better place to start.” She reached out to a social worker at the shelter in April offering to cook for the residents. The social worker accepted the offer and the following week Greenwald dropped enough meals to feed 30 people. The positive response from the shelter residents inspired her to keep going.

Before long, the meal drop off became a weekly Wednesday night event. But Greenwald wanted to help even more and reached out again to the social worker asking what else was needed. The social worker responded saying the women and children were in need of clothing, toys and toiletries.

Greenwald then proceeded to post old-fashioned flyers on her block asking for donations. The response from her neighbors was tremendous and donations began to pour in. “My project has brought out the best in my neighbors who have embraced the idea of helping in a pandemic.” Prior to her project, there was little if any interaction at all between the shelter residents and the residents of the block, Greenwald explained.

Greenwald sorts through and folds the donated clothing and organizes the toys. She then personally delivers these items to the women and children at The Ellington along with her home-cooked meals on Wednesday nights.

“The idea is to say to these women and children, ‘We see you. You are a member of our community, we know you are in hard times and we want to extend our hand to you,’” said Greenwald.

Individual shelter residents have expressed their appreciation to Greenwald.  One woman, a former taxi driver who lost her job during the pandemic, was recently able to find a new job with help from the social workers, Greenwald said. “She has expressed unending gratitude to me for all she acquired through donations of the past months; jackets, blouses, beautiful dishes from a neighbor’s grandmother.”

At Christmas time, Greenwald initiated a special holiday gift drive by generating a holiday wish list from the shelter residents. She then asked neighbors to choose a particular family to donate a holiday gift to so that the wish list of each family was fulfilled. “A woman from the shelter was waiting for me last week to model the Eddie Bauer down coat someone purchased for the holiday gift drive. She was so happy and kept saying thank you.”

Nancy Goldfarb, a resident of West 111th Street and Greenwald’s neighbor, says Greenwald has inspired kindness and compassion in the neighborhood. “Not only has Lisa brightened the lives of the residents but she has singlehandedly changed the way her neighbors view the shelter by galvanizing awareness and support. Before Lisa, nobody thought to reach out to the residents to offer assistance Goldfarb wrote to West Side Rag. “I’ve lived on this block since the shelter first opened, in approximately 2002, and I can’t think of a time when anybody paid any attention to the residents.”

FOOD, NEWS | 16 comments | permalink
    1. Lady Di says:

      would love to help this amazing woman with clothing donations and food; if anyone on the staff of WSR or readers knows how to contact her, please answer ? thank you!

      • Lisa Greenwald says:

        Thank you so much; I’m so glad you want to help. You can reach me through the Stuyvesant HS website or through the WSR. But honestly, the Ellington is already well sourced. I’m hoping this article inspires others to find the place in their community that needs help the most and to offer it there. I’m happy to give you ideas if you want to talk. If we all do something like this everywhere in NYC we will be building community exponentially.

        • Leland says:

          What about clothing donations? We’d been donating children’s clothing to St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church at WEA and 86th. Would they be interested at the Ellington when we gather our next batch? We’ve called other shelters in the area.

          note: Our Stuy graduate didn’t have you but maybe our current student will.

    2. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      “The idea is to say to these women and children, ‘We see you. You are a member of our community, we know you are in hard times and we want to extend our hand to you,’” said Greenwald.

      Exactly. A New Year’s lesson for all.

    3. Jane says:

      This is a great story! If I still lived in the City, I would offer to help. But alas, I am in North Carolina now.

    4. Marianna says:

      Ms. Greenwald was my daughter’s 10th grade teacher. She’s a wonderful educator & so nice to see that she’s just as lovely outside of the building, within her community.

    5. Sarah says:

      Bless this woman for taking the initiative here.

    6. Sheila Robinson says:

      Is there contact info for Ms. Greenwood?

    7. js says:

      There are at least 2 other family shelters on the West Side and a number of midtown/Times Square/Penn Station hotels being used as shelters for families.
      They are run by non-profits under contract to NYC.

      Perhaps the Community Board could reach out to DHS and help connect people who would like to support/volunteer ?

    8. CHIOMA N. OKORO says:

      As the previous Manager of the program @Ellington it was my pleasure not just seeing the love and kindness shown by Ms Greenwald and the others whom she singlehandedly engaged into this selfless venture, but working close to her to reach the families within personally and intellectually. Her dedication not just to provide home cooked healthy alternative to these families weekly but to offer read-to-me moments to the children during the summer around the park is remarkable.
      I appreciate the neighbours and community and look forward to working more with Ms Greenwald locally as well as in other communities.

      • Lisa Greenwald says:

        I could not have done this without the help and consummate professionalism of social worker Ms. Chioma N. Okoro! I miss working together. Your new work sites are now is lucky to have you!

    9. super article. so, so proud of lisa and all she does. thanks for posting, doug.

    10. Rina says:

      What a wonderful act of kindness. I’m sure this will inspire others to participate in their communities in meaningful and significant ways. Thank you.

    11. Linda Winston says:

      Brava for Lisa! This is the most heartening
      news I’ve learned since last March when the
      lockdown began.

      What a great teacher Lisa is, teaching by
      example. We are all indebted to her.

    12. Karyn Elizabeth says:

      HI I saw the story of Ms Greenwald on NY1 and she is a miracle worker!! I’d love to donate food, clothes, etc. but as I read the comments I guess the Ellington is not in need of items now as other shelters may be more in need. I’d still love to assist with donations of food and clothing. thank you kc