Local Groups Vie for Public Purpose Funds

December 5, 2017

Over the course of two nights in November, nine Island organizations took to the podium at Good Shepherd Community Center to make their case for why they should be awarded a portion of this year’s Public Purpose Fund (PPF), a $100,000 pot set aside by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to support local nonprofits. 


As in past years, the requests, which total nearly $200,000, far exceed the available funds. 


A four-member committee organized by the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA) will make recommendations to RIOC for how to distribute the funds among the applicants. Recommendations are expected at the December 6 RIRA meeting. 


According to many of the groups, the PPF grant is essential to their sustainability. Premilla Dixit Nag, the sole paid staff for Living Library, a gardening program run by Life Frames, explained that their grant money will keep the program alive for the next year. Nag provides all of the programming sessions, and the grant money pays her salary. 


 Judy Berdy presents on behalf of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.


Investing in Community


In their presentations to the PPF committee, many of the nonprofit groups outlined their efforts – some stretching back decades – to provide essential services to the Roosevelt Island community, including youth enrichment, cultural space, performance and fitness classes, and support for those living with disabilities. The supplemental funding, they say, allows them to reach more Islanders – through scholarships, new programming, and outreach – than they’d otherwise be able to. They also say that, because the Island’s population is relatively small, they’ve found it hard to secure other forms of revenue without having to turn their backs – by increasing class fees or cutting services – on some Islanders who need them the most. 


The Public Purpose Fund was created in 1989. The developers of Manhattan Park paid the equivalent of a sales tax into the fund rather than paying actual sales tax on the construction materials. Over the years, grants from the fund have been awarded to the numerous Island organizations, including the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, Island Kids, the Seniors’ Association, and others, but there’s been no contribution similar to the Manhattan Park arrangement to replenish the fund.


Once that fund was depleted, in 2008, RIOC began contributing $100,000 to the Public Purpose Fund and tasked RIRA with making recommendations for its allocation. In the nearly 10 years since, that amount has never been increased.


However, many Island nonprofits point out that their expenses have sharply risen over that time. The Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, for example, wasn’t paying rent for their space back in 2008. RIVAA Gallery likewise had a very different retail space arrangement. 


Additionally, several groups have reported to The WIRE that they still have not received disbursements from last year’s awards.


Over the course of a 10-minute presentation and 20 minutes of follow-up questioning, the nine Island organizations spoke passionately of how they serve the community, how they would like to grow their missions, and the struggles they face to stay afloat.




The Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance is asking for $35,000, the largest bulk of which –  $14,500 – would be used for scholarships and a work study grant. 


“Last year we awarded over $11,000 in grants,” said MST&DA Board President John Dougherty. “This year we are on track to increase that by 21 percent, and that’s due to public purpose funds.” He said the organization’s goal is to widen arts participation around the community.


The group also earmarked $12,000 toward an assistant executive director salary, $8,000 for community programming, and $500 for community events.


Executive Director Kristi Towey told the committee that MST&DA has tried applying for other grants; however, the group simply doesn’t have the staff or resources needed to devote the necessary time and labor these types of grants typically require. 


Last year, MST&DA was granted $19,300 of their requested $35,000, the most of any of the nine groups that were awarded funds. 




The Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA), now headed by longtime Island activist Wendy Hersh and Vice President Nancy Brown, is looking to broaden the group’s focus, and the visibility of people with disabilities in the community. The group is requesting $18,000, which Hersh says would help with recruiting younger members, and those with mental illness and other “invisible disabilities.” She says RIDA would also like to host more events, including one celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as seminars on Employment, Mental Health, and Assistive Technology. A new brochure and website are in the works, Hersh says, as well as collaboration with more Island organizations, including Open Doors, which works with men of color living with disabilities at Coler Hospital.


Last year RIDA was awarded $10,000. Hersh told the committee that, in the past year, the group worked with RIOC to ensure the Sportspark pool was made accessible, ensure wheelchair accessibility at all Island events, provide holiday meals for members, and trips in their 15-passenger wheelchair-accessible bus, which currently needs some TLC. 




The Roosevelt Historical Society, which provides free lectures, maintains an archive of Island history, and runs the Visitor Center next to the Tram, requested $32,000 this year. According to President Judy Berdy, the funds would be used primarily to pay salaries for the Visitor Center staff, as well as to provide outreach to Cornell Tech, and continue the group’s historical lecture series. This year they have offered seven lectures at the New York Public Library.  Last year they received $8,800. 




The Roosevelt Island Visual Artists Association, which runs Gallery RIVAA at 527 Main Street, requested $42,000 in Public Purpose funds, the largest request of all applicants. 


According to RIVAA president Tad Sudol, 90 percent of the group’s funding goes to paying rent and utilities for the gallery space. When asked by committee members why the group had not developed additional revenue sources, Sudol explained that the group had received some private donations and sold some art, but that their options were limited. “No fund will help you pay rent,” he told the committee. He says the delay in disbursement from last year’s $9,800 in PPF funds prevented the group from paying their rent for ten months.


Sudol emphasized the visibility of RIVAA in the community and their role in fostering art on the Island. Sudol estimated that RIVAA holds 30 events a year and that the prep for an event takes one week. “I think we are doing, on this Island, more than many others,” he told the committee. “We serve the entire community.”


PS/IS 217


The PS/IS 217 Parent Teacher Association is requesting $22,500 to fund the popular Salvadori program, which promotes urban green design, for sixth- and seventh-graders, as well as a musical theater program for the fourth grade. Last year, the group asked for $28,000 and received $18,000.


PTA President Erin Olavesen spent much of her time on the podium responding to questions about the school’s performance and demographics. She described the school as “one of the most diverse schools in District Two,” with roughly 17 percent of the students English language learners and 35 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. She also clarified that 81 percent of the school’s students live on the Island. 


Olavesen called PS/IS 217 a “school on the rise,” and said that, since 2010, the school has seen a 52 percent increase in enrollment. “The narrative that families leave after second grade is untrue,” she told committee members, pointing out that the school’s current fourth grade class is their largest, with over 100 students. 


“The low enrollment at 217’s middle school is a very complicated issue,” she said of the school’s small middle school population, “And while we struggle to keep high-achieving students on Island, we firmly stand behind our mission of providing a high-quality education for every single 217 student, including those who choose to stay at 217 for middle school.” 


She also pointed out that this year’s sixth-grade class has 32 students. “That’s the biggest it’s been in some time.”


Island Kids


Children’s enrichment group Island Kids is asking for $10,000 in public purpose funds to help them reach underserved populations of youth and young adults on the Island. 


“Our programming has been designed to fill gaps that exist in the community,” explained Executive Director Nikki Leopold. The group currently offers toddler and pre-K enrichment programs, afterschool programming for kindergarten through second grade, and summer camp. This year they also added free middle school programming. 


Now Island Kids would like to start programming for 16-29 year olds through the Moving Forward Program, which would consist of hard and soft skill training, including resume writing and interviewing skills. When participants complete the program, they’d receive a certificate and be eligible for placement.


“People in this age group are having trouble being able to move forward,” Leopold said.  “I’ve never seen such a group of kids who have no idea what to do next.”


Living Library


Gardening program Life Frames is requesting $19,900 to continue the Living Library program for the next year. The money would pay the salary of Premilla Dixit Nag, who runs the program in the Island.


According to Dixit Nag, the group’s regular programming consists of twice-weekly work with the Beacon in early spring, summer, and fall, consisting of 30-40 kids, and a program they run in partnership with the New York Public Library, in which they say they have 10-15 families throughout the season. 


She says she’s been in contact with the new Beacon operator, The Child Center of NY, about future programming, and expects to start working with them in February, though officials with the Beacon program told The WIRE there are no current plans to work with the Living Library. The Roosevelt Island Seniors Association has committed to work with them starting in the spring. 




The Roosevelt Island Marlins swim program applied for funds for the first time this year. The group says it would use the $11,638 to expand its Learn To Swim program, as well as paying other expenses. 


According to Marlins Board member, Ib Olsen, the group started 11 years ago with 20 kids, and now serves 200. They’ve had kids win swim scholarships, medals at the Junior Olympics, and earn national top rankings. “With the Sportspark closed last year, we lost our learn-to-swim instructor and kids,” Olsen told the committee. “Our swim team was sent out to random pools around New York City for practice.” Olsen also explained that the group does not offer full scholarships because they believe that paying, even a little bit, makes the commitment stronger.


Wildlife Freedom Federation


Animal activist Rossana Ceruzzi’s Wildlife Freedom Federation applied for $5,000, which Ceruzzi said would go towards “enhanced care for animals, and engaging the community.” 


There are currently four cat sanctuaries on the Island. Southpoint’s is the largest, with 22 cats. Her group also rescues animals needing immediate attention. According to Ceruzzi, the average price for a cat rescue is between $300 and $400. She has also rescued raccoons, squirrels, and opossums. “There are a lot of costs associated with this work,” Ceruzzi told the committee. 


The Process


Once eligibility is established, the RIRA Public Purpose Fund committee reviews applications and makes recommendations for funding to the RIOC Board. 


The application process for Public Purpose Funds is rigorous. Only nonprofits can apply and only those nonprofits which serve the Roosevelt Island Community.


Organizations are required to supply RIOC with proof of appropriate licenses and permits for provision of the services they perform, as well as IRS forms, budgets, staff lists, and many other documents. 


RIRA, which isn’t allowed to apply for the funding itself, is tasked with balancing the community benefit of each PPF applicant with the funding available and making recommendations to RIOC. RIOC is not bound, however, to honor those recommendations. 


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