Local Non-Profits Vie for Public Purpose Funds

October 27, 2018

Ten Island non-profits went to the podium at Good Shepherd Community Center over the course of two evenings this past week to make their case for why they should be awarded a portion of this year’s Public Purpose Fund (PPF), a $150,000 pot set aside by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to support local nonprofits.


According to many of the groups, the PPF grant is essential to their sustainability. The Wildlife Freedom Foundation, a group that cares for 75 cats in three cat sanctuaries across the Island, and rescues injured wildlife of all kinds, is seeking $10,000. They are hoping to purchase a vehicle with the funds. President of the group Rossana Ceruzzi, who brings these injured animals to specialists and veterinarians in Queens and Manhattan, said they need a vehicle partly because “in many cases cabs don’t want to take an opossum or a racoon.”


In their presentations to the PPF committee, many of the non-profit 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 numerous Island organizations, including the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, Island Kids, the Roosevelt Island 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.This year marks the first time the fund has increased. Though the collective ask at $254,000 is still a lot larger than the pot, the increase does provide the committee with a greater ability to help Island organizations than they have had previously.


The applicants – PS/IS 217 PTA, Life Frames, IDig2Learn, Island Kids, the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, Carter Burden Network, Roosevelt Island Historical Society, Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association and the Wildlife Freedom Foundation – 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 Public Purpose Fund Committee from left to right: F. Scott Piro, Dave Evans, Erin Feely-Nahem, Frank Farance



The committee, comprised of Dave Evans, Erin Feely-Nahem, Frank Farance, and F. Scott Piro had 10-minutes to question each applicant, followed by another 10-minute period for public questions.


PS/IS 217


The PS/IS 217 Parent Teacher Association is requesting $33,500 to fund the popular Salvadori program, which promotes urban green design, for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, as well as a Music Together program for pre-K and kindergarten grade. Last year, the group asked for $22,500.





PTA co-President Irena Durkovic was joined at the podium at various points by middle school students who shared their experience with the Salvadori program, and principal Mandana Beckman.







Durkovic explained that the bulk of the school’s contributions come from families. She also attributed much of the school’s growth and increase in test scores to residencies like Salvadori and Music Together. “Every year our test scores go up,” she said.


Durkovic explained the value of Music Together for the younger kids, “music is accessible to kids with different languages,” she said, also explaining that it aids in early understanding of mathematical concepts.


Beckman pointed out that this year’s pre-K and kindergarten classes, along with all three middle school classes, are almost at capacity. “These enrichments attract and keep families.”


Living Library


The gardening program Life Frames is requesting $27,000 to continue the Living Library program for the next year. The money would go towards a four-bin compost on their plot outside the new library, an international garden, and an orchard. The group started right after the September 11 attacks. Of their longevity, China Bushell, head teacher and head gardener, said, “There are many kids who have grown up in this program,” and shared that a member of their staff started in the program as a child back in 2001.


According to Bushell, the group worked with the Beacon Program in early spring, summer, and fall; they also conduct programming in partnership with the New York Public Library. They plan on resuming work with the Island’s disabled population, in partnership with Coler Hospital’s Therapeutic Recreation program. To that end, part of their plan is to offer six raised beds for the disabled in their garden.


According to Bushell, her group will be doing the landscaping outside the new library. She said, “It’s a wonderful way of explaining to people that there is a library, and then there is a living library.” They receive all of their supplies in kind and they are “working diligently on other funding sources,” said Bushell.


Last year they requested $19,900.




Christina Delfico, founder of the hands-on gardening program that allows children to explore science and the origin of food through plant life, IDig2Learn, said, “It’s been a milestone year for IDig2Learn.” Not only do they now have a sponsor, the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization and think tank that seeks to preserve scenic, natural and historic landscapes, but they were able to point to many recent accomplishments, including the Coler Garden restoration project where 130 Google employees spent the day at Coler and planted over 600 plants. IDig2Learn has organized multiple milkweed plantings to restore pollinator habitats for monarch butterflies on the Island. Their partnership with Big Reuse has enabled that group to collect 80,000 lbs. of food scraps from the Island. According to Delfico, “that’s a big deal for the Department of Sanitation.” Delfico has worked with many Island and off-Island groups including the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, Girl Scouts, PS/IS 217 PTA, Green Roosevelt Island Neighbors, and Coler Hospital Department of Therapeutic Recreation.


 Christina Delfico, Founder of IDig2Learn


IDig2Learn is requesting $21,700 to “help residents of all ages really see nature on Roosevelt Island.” She is hoping to offer multiple workshops and experiences for all ages.


Island Kids


The children’s enrichment group Island Kids is asking for $25,000 in public purpose funds to help them reach underserved populations of youth and young adults on the Island. $10,000 will be for scholarship funds and $15,000 for Moving Forward.


“We opened up spots for 35 kids who had no after-school this past fall” explained Executive Director Nikki Leopold; “ten needed full scholarships.” The group currently offers toddler and pre-K enrichment programs, after-school programming for kindergarten through second grade, and summer camp. This year they held four different focus groups in an effort to start an apprenticeship program for 16-29 year olds through their newly branded Moving Forward Program. Leopold said that some of the young women they interviewed expressed feelings of being a forgotten group on Roosevelt Island.


Depression, lack of direction, a need for a mentoring relationship, mental health, and drug abuse were what the men cited. Leopold said, “We knew this would come up, but not to the extent that it has.”


Moving Forward will consist of hard and soft skill training, including resume writing and interviewing skills. When participants complete the program, they’ll receive a certificate and be eligible for placement.


As part of Moving Forward, Island Kids has collaborated with Cornell Tech and the WitNY Program (Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York), an initiative that aims to facilitate, encourage, and enable a significant increase in the participation of women in both higher education and entrepreneurship in fields related to technology in the New York market. They expect their vocational training to begin in January.




The Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA), headed by longtime Island activist Wendy Hersh and Vice President Nancy Brown, has achieved last year’s goal – broadening the group’s focus, and the visibility of people with disabilities in the community. “In the last year we more than doubled our relationship,” explained Brown, “We have over 120 members between age 30 and 70. Last year we had 50 members with an average age of 55.”


The group is requesting $20,000, which Hersh says “would help us continue our efforts to serve all Island residents living with a disability.”


As of last week, their bus repairs have been completed. But, with 120 members, a 14-passenger bus, makes things complicated. Hersh explained that making the same trip multiple times to serve all of the members is taxing on the bus.


RIDA President Wendy Hersh and  RIDA board member Andrew Oliver 


Board member Andrew Oliver said, “we have a desire to encourage younger Islanders who are not disabled to get involved.” With their grant money they hope to increase involvement in Island activities and programming both on and off Island.


Carter Burden Senior Center


The Carter Burden Roosevelt Island Senior Center has seen increases in enrollment in everything, from their health management workshops, art classes, fitness classes, and tech classes. They serve more lunches than ever before, and more clients than ever eat at the center. As to what to attribute the increase in attendance to, Lisa Fernandez, director of the center says, “I’d like to attribute it to my staff and me.”


Fernandez says they offer “above and beyond the spectrum of services required by the Department of the Aging,” and that, besides their many community partnerships, what makes her happiest is the “cacophony of noise” that she hears upon entering.


They are requesting $20,000 to increase programming, workshops, art classes, and fitness classes. Fernandez says, “we have a suggestion box and we get a lot of suggestions for classes we don’t offer but we’d like to offer them.”


Last year they expressed a desire to cook their meals on site, and executive director Bill Dionne said what’s holding them back is that they need a lease, and they need to bring their kitchen up to code. That would cost them in the neighborhood of $300,000 - 400,000.




The Roosevelt Historical Society, which provides free lectures, maintains an archive of Island history, and runs the Visitor Center next to the Tram, requested $31,000 this year. They have spent a lot of time assisting RIOC with their archives this year and also have over 200 binders of their own.


According to President Judy Berdy, they expect 60,000 visitors at the kiosk this year. Their funds would not only pay the kiosk workers salaries, but would also be used to pay honorariums for their historical lecture series, to host their website, for their outreach programs, their brochure, and for printing their map.


The new location of the Farmer’s Market is fitting, explained Berdy in her presentation stopping at an old photo of the Good Shepherd Church, “There used to be a cabbage patch outside the church.”





The Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance is asking for $39,000. They hope to use it for scholarships, lighting modernization, summer camp theater, and community outreach and partnerships. “You’ll see us at every kind of event on Roosevelt Island,” said MST&DA Board President John Dougherty.


Their lighting modernization would incorporate LED lighting, lowering energy costs, and allow the middle and high school students that take their tech workshops to learn in an environment similar to other theaters who have current lighting systems. According to Dougherty, the lighting in the Howe Theatre was hung by Worth Howe himself, about 30 years ago, and really needs to be updated.


Dougherty said, “This year we are on track to increase scholarships by 25 percent, and that’s due to public purpose funds.” They have added the Diana Brill dance scholarship and Nancy Howe Theatre scholarship, full scholarships for students that show promise in those disciplines. He said the organization’s goal is to enrich the cultural life of Roosevelt Island by widening theater arts and dance participation around the community.


Regarding the assistant executive director salary they were awarded public purpose funding for last year, Dougherty said, “we’ve been able to execute on that.” They serve 300 kids in-house, and an increasing number of adults. Last year their adult theater class had four students. This year it has 20. They also offer free and subsidized theater to Island Kids and Beacon students.  




The Roosevelt Island Visual Artists Association, which runs Gallery RIVAA at 527 Main Street, requested $27,700 in Public Purpose funds.


In a presentation led by board member Jim Pignetti and RIVAA vice president Esther Cohen, they listed the Motorgate Gallery, Fall for the Arts, the Cherry Blossom Festival, and Roosevelt Island Day as Island-wide annual events that RIVAA participates in, not to mention the large number of exhibitions they hold year round. Meanwhile, according to Pignetti, “no one in RIVAA is paid, but we work hard and have earned community support.”


They want to bring more public art to Roosevelt Island, in addition to the Blue Dragon and the First Plinth. “We’re trying to bring art everywhere,” explained Cohen, and they now have their art hanging on the walls at NISI, and members have worked with MST&DA, painting sets.


Their big request, however, has nothing to do with art; it is for a new HVAC system. Repeating what RIVAA president Tad Sudol explained last year, RIVAA member Laura Hussey said, “You can’t get grants for rent and utilities.” In Hussey’s view it’s a catch-22; without rent and utilities, you can’t hold exhibitions, but what value do their exhibitions have if they can’t pay their rent or heat or cool their space. Hussey affirmed that RIOC did allow them to use the money for heat last cycle.


Wildlife Freedom Federation


Animal activist Rossana Ceruzzi’s Wildlife Freedom Federation applied for $10,000, which Ceruzzi said would go towards “enhanced care for animals, and engaging the community.”


There are currently three cat sanctuaries on the Island with varying amounts of what Ceruzzi calls sociability ranging from sociable to feral. In the last three weeks alone, they’ve rescued five cats. Although she says surveillance has discouraged people from “dumping” their cats, it still does happen.


Recent grants and donations have paid for a new cat sanctuary at Southpoint Park. 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.


Ultimately, Ceruzzi hopes to further enhance care and engage the community in lifesaving programs and education. She also cites hundreds of trips to veterinarians or avian specialists off-Island for which she currently takes cabs, and would like to purchase a vehicle. The group would also use that to carry food back and forth to the animals on opposite ends of the Island, a “tremendous job that takes hours, especially with snow and ice.”


All in all, however, “This has been a very good year for the Wildlife Freedom Foundation,” said Ceruzzi.


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 non-profits can apply, and only those non-profits 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.


The RIRA Public Purpose Funds Committee will make recommendations to RIOC for how to distribute the funds among the applicants. 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. Final decisions by RIOC are expected at the December 13 board meeting.  



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