Tag Archives: Kristine Rakowsky

The Best Valentine

On Valentine’s Day, “Miriam” gets a hand and a smile exiting the bus that brought her home after living in shelter for over three months.

Having a moniker like “Kiki Valentine” makes every February 14th especially poignant since it’s the day that best represents – despite its deeply-based roots in what I like to call “Catholic gore” – love and all that it means. This year, I have the gift of reflecting on the wedding ceremonies I wrote and officiated, the bringing together of two lives in a sense and ceremony of traditional love. I’m so glad I have had those experiences. What can I say? I love love.

Another great personal love story is the sordid tale of a population of just over 100 elderly and disabled Hurricane Sandy evacuees from Belle Harbor Manor in Far Rockaway, Queens whom I met while volunteering at the Park Slope Armory’s temporary medical shelter last October. The first overnight I volunteered, I planned on being there for four hours but instead I stayed until eight the following morning. I just couldn’t leave if I knew I could help a few more people; most volunteers would leave each night after midnight, leaving a true skeleton crew to assist, walking the rows, flashlight in hand, to see if anyone was awake and had any needs. In the days that followed, I spent hours in the dark sorting, organizing and distributing clothing donations. That was a really great way to connect with people, they would come up to the fenced-in area, tell me what they needed, and I was, basically, a “personal shopper” for them, since I knew best what colors and sizes were available. I cut the fingernails of patients (because the nurses weren’t allowed to). In fact, out of all of the supplies and medical support in the shelter, there were no nail clippers anywhere. During the Nor’Easter following Sandy, I set out in the snowstorm to find some. The man whose nails I cut that night, Eddie, is a resident of Belle Harbor Manor and it turned out we have a mutual friend in common from the ‘old neighborhood”, Red Hook.

During the course of November, I bought so many pairs of mens and womens underwear I lost count. I spent overnights armed with latex gloves and a flashlight sorting donations and taking blind people to the bathroom in the dark, amazed that my usually fragile sense of smell had somehow strengthened to be able to keep on going. Only one night did someone’s “accident” cause me to uncontrollably gag, and that was when I was reminded of how amazing nurses are. I learned about the magnificent glory of “chucks”, which are basically giant blue absorbent pads placed onto wheelchairs in the event adult diapers leaked. There were a lot of pathogens involved with volunteering, and odors – especially when the shelter was operating at full capacity with 500 patients. Since the Armory is a gymnasium, all of the cots were arranged within the indoor track, so my slapstick wheeling of patients along the track allowed for some comic relief. Later I moved, in the rain, with residents from shelter to shelter, transporting them with Zipcars, in times of need, and staying with them past visiting hours if they asked me to. I fed them, clothed them, secretly brought them donuts and coffee and have spent countless hours on the phone with the OEM, Department of Health and FEMA on their behalf,sometimes speaking high school Spanish, or attempting, as I needed so desperately at times, to channel the ability to speak Chinese to help them file their claims (it didn’t happen). I made a lot of calls to friends in very high (and very low) places to lend a hand, and as a result small amenities like a daily newspaper delivery ended up changing a lot of people’s lives. Throughout, I have been forced to consider the way that we, as Americans – and as New Yorkers – treat our aging population. And during my journey what I discovered incensed me.

ICL Milestone at Creedmor Psychiatric Campus, Queens, NY

ICL Milestone at Creedmor Psychiatric Campus, Queens, NY. Looks spooky, because it is spooky.

After the first three weeks, when 350 other residents were discharged from the Armory, I knew that I was making an invisible commitment to make sure they were “okay”. Little did I know they would need a lot more help then I or anyone could ever imagine. After the first six weeks, they had lived in three separate shelters which, each time, meant that several garbage bags full of belongings (donations obtained from myself and others) would be lost. Seven weeks after the storm they were still sleeping on “Army cots”, and a ramshackle team of volunteers, advocates, and caring humans did all they could, called everyone they knew might be able to help, and change eventually started to occur. A check from the Attorney General was signed, beds were delivered (just in time for a quasi-outbreak of bedbugs).

On the heels of the shooting back home in Sandy Hook and a truly cheerless holiday, on Christmas Day I decided to advocate full time for Belle Harbor Manor’s residents, and, for the past 106 days of our lives, I have been part of one of the greatest love stories I have ever known. Full of hope, optimism, and scandal – as any good love story is – in the end, after all of the dead ends that I somehow bulldozed through, after getting lost in Queens in the dark and the drives home in tears calling anyone I could think of who might help (thank you Allen Salkin), I have to laugh about the fact that I was not once but twice kicked out of the psychiatric hospital residents were sheltered in.

The first day residents were transferred to the Creedmor Psychiatric Campus, I was told that I had to be credentialed and complete a background check in order to be on the property, of which I attempted to initiate while stalling on the phone with ICL Senior management. I didn’t want to lose access to them in this institution. It was more ike a prison than a hospital, and it felt like there was much dark energy throughout. The VP of Bologna eventually told me, with security standing over me trying to get me out, that she couldn’t do anything about the site administrator’s decision. Leaving there that day, I asked the receptionist for a pen, to which she began reaching for each pen on the counter to move it from my reach. Sadistic, sociopathic. I didn’t want to imagine how these residents would be treated. For the first time in my life I uttered the words, “You don’t know who you’re fucking with” and think I lived up to it.

I also somehow narrowly escaped the risk of contracting both bed bugs and scabies, two events which sent other volunteers directly to the pharmacist and into an alarmed spin that included some medication, a lotion, that you slather on and sleep in. The point of this rather unpoetic stream of consciousness is that these residents, in all of their shining diversity, have made me reevaluate who I am as a person and what my purpose as a human in this life at this time really means. They have encouraged me to think outside the box, ignore stereotypes, exercise patience, to not fear mental illness, to overcome a weak sense of smell, to continue to stand up for what is right, to keep on asking questions, to be a better cold caller, to overcome insurmountable obstacles (any dealings with politicians excluded) and challenges, to connect with other like-minded people who also really care about others, and to develop a sense of strength I had long forgotten that the seed of was within me. All of this motivation and impetus wasn’t always direct or painless, and it certainly was not planned. After the overwhelming experience of being in the Park Slope Armory that first night, I kept going back. I could not leave these suffering strangers. Besides, I didn’t have electricity or heat at home, we had an eight-foot storm surge. People – especially my family – have asked why I had gotten myself so involved, and I didn’t have an answer; I simply followed my heart.

It was anguishing to know that this aging and disabled population, most with no family or support, were left to suffer and be the pawns in a struggle between the City of New York and the State of New York’s Department of Health, and that they were paying upwards of $1900 in rent each month to live on the campus of a remote psychiatric hospital in Queens. I often found myself wondering,”If not for us, who will help them?” Certainly not the long list of “burned out” professional case workers I encountered, fighting their own fights against what was right (humanism) vs. what they were being told to do (red tape). There was anger and strife throughout, for the residents, for the volunteers, for the staff, for the journalists. And yet from all of this, compassion, friendship and love were born. To me, the strange but beautiful part of the story is that of all the shelters residents found themselves in, if given the choice to return to the setting the Armory provided, every single one of them says they would rather be there than, shockingly, back home at Belle Harbor Manor.

There are so many people I wish to thank, and I will attempt to do so in the event they are, like me, set up with Google Alerts for themselves. In the meantime, I plan on writing more about this. The harsh reality is that my relationship to these people isn’t over once they return home. They still have needs. Many are the victims of looting. Their belongings and cash, thought to be safely locked, needing replacement. Social security cards, passports, green cards, and more. I am set to look at the long-term disaster relief and planning required for others like them. I will again need to make those calls and send email to others who might be able to help me be of better service to others. For now, however, I will sleep tonight, relieved for the first time in 107 days. This what love looks like to me this Valentine’s Day. Home. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about how many people have touched my life since this storm washed away all of my fear. Thank you.

“If your name is Kiki then I’m changing my name to ‘Voodoo'”, she said. And from then it was clear that despite our differences, we would be friends. Today was our goodbye to shelter #3, Creedmor (although she did like the free use of computers, stating, “There is so much information on the Internet! I need to get a computer of my own!”

To my left, Tom Fortune, who, while at the Armory on my overnight rounds, never asked me for anything. I went on this wild portable radio shopping obsession because I felt it was critical that while in shelter, people should be able listen to the news, or most importantly, to music, to feel connected with what we would later refer to as “the outside”. When I brought the radio to him, he in his wheelchair on the four lane track amongst a population of 500, he said “Give it to someone who needs it.” I replied, “But I got this for you.” Here we are 106 days later and he says, “Of course we’ll stay in touch. I’ll call you every time my radio runs out of batteries.” To my right, the sweet and caring Donna Rubin.

After the donation sorting and organizing at The Armory (an enormous undertaking every night), the library at Milestone Residence at Creedmor Psychiatric Hospital is transformed into a donation center. Now, the shelves are bare and belonging, transported in black garbage bags similar to those the residents were living out of, have returned “home”.

When I received this card and opened it, I felt that the hours of sacrifice and hard work were somehow able to culminate into this one simple and unexpected thank you. Just touching to the 1,000,000th degree.

THANK YOU (in no order and I am hoping I haven’t forgotten any/many):

The residents and staff of Belle Harbor Manor
RI-1 DMAT
Ali Hodin-Baier, Aging in New York Fund
Amy Parsons, The American Red Cross (and now, a friend)
Jake from the Washington Conservation Corps
Caron Atlas http://www.artsanddemocracy.org
AmeriCorps team members
The Amory volunteers
The Kings Hotel volunteers
The Creedmor volunteers
Casey Shea
Nicholas Verburgt (Express Men’s sock donations)
Maria Provenzano and the CenterLight staff at Kings Hotel
Amy Glosser, CERT & online volunteer infrastructure developer
Meryl Blackman
Justin the FEMA inspector
David Caruso, The Associated Press
Doug Kuntz (do gooder, photographer, rabble rouser)
Brett Cotter http://www.stressbegone.org
Laura Black, NYC OEM
JK Canepa, CIAD
Geoff Lieberman, CIAD
Amanda Bickerstaff, UWS Loves
Suzanne Windland, SNAP & all that she has done and continues to do!
Christina Komploris, NY Post/WSJ donations
Richard Shults Jr., NY Post/WSJ donations
Andy McCallihan, NY Post/WSJ donations
Jill Cornell, donations and all of her work in the Rockaways
JC Hopkins, volunteer and transportation!
Pam Koner, mobile phones for residents
Jerry Probst, FEMA inspector and encouraging, awesome soul
Felice Steele, The American Red Cross (and also a diligent do-gooder!)
Maureen Italiano, ICL Milestone staffer who challenged me
Larissa, ICL Milestone staffer who really cares about people
Brad Lander, City Councilman & Staff
Joseph Ger Ph.D, BCBA-D
Brad Harrelson, The American Red Cross, Texas (helped connect family members)
Nannearl Blackshear, Brooklyn Borough President’s Office
Lynda Lowe, FEMA
Peggy Mott, FEMA
Krystal Reyes
Oswald Ramsammy, NY Times donations
Justin Silverman, connections to newspaper donations
Christine Kessler (helped us find a lost resident)
Marina Tsamplina, NY Helps NY
Megan Byrn
Parker Tracey and Dave Escovitz at Char No. 4 who covered shifts for me so I could help
AND TO EVERYONE who donated!
Dave Ankers
Dennis and Jeni Espantman
Lael @ FIND Home Furnishings, Brooklyn
Duben Canales & Jasmine Heikura
Keara Driscoll
Maria Esther Hammck
William Groner
Kristina Kroger
Selma Kalousek
Beezlebabe Siren
Margaret Welch
Karen Cowdell
Annie Chambliss
Jay Christensen
Simon Durkin
Farzin Lofti-Jam

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Media Placement of the Year: AP Brings Plight of Elderly to Global Wire

December 27th, 2012

ASSOCIATED PRESS, NEW YORK – Hundreds of elderly and disabled New Yorkers who were hurriedly evacuated from seaside nursing homes and assisted living residences after Superstorm Sandy are still in a grim limbo two months later, sleeping on cots in temporary quarters without such comforts as private bathrooms or even regular changes of clothes.

Their plight can be seen at places like the Bishop Henry B. Hucles Episcopal Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Brooklyn, which was full before the refugees arrived and is now swollen to nearly double its licensed capacity.

For eight weeks, close to 190 patients forced out of the flooded Rockaway Care Center in Queens have been shoehorned into every available space at the 240-bed Bishop Hucles.

Most still didn’t have beds last week. Instead, they bunked on rows of narrow, increasingly filthy Red Cross cots in rooms previously used for physical therapy or community activities. More than a dozen slept nightly in the nursing home’s tiny chapel.

Amid the overcrowding, a 69-year-old patient left the home unnoticed at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, slipping past security measures intended to keep residents with dementia from wandering off. The facility didn’t alert police until 5:18 a.m. She wandered for two days before turning up unhurt at a hospital in another part of Brooklyn, police said.

“It feels like a MASH unit here right now,” said a staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “People are working incredibly hard. The circumstance could not be more dire, and people are getting the best possible care we can manage.”

In Queens, many of the roughly 160 residents evacuated from the Belle Harbor Manor assisted living facility were recently moved from a hotel to a halfway house on the grounds of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, a partly abandoned mental hospital.

Many Belle Harbor residents have been diagnosed with mild psychiatric disorders, but several complained that at the halfway house, called the Milestone Residence, they have been mixed in with more severely ill patients who were living there already.

Those in the halfway house cannot have visitors in their rooms. Residents have complained about things being stolen and people banging on their doors late at night.

“It was nothing but a shock when we found out we were coming here,” said Belle Harbor resident Alex Woods, 57. He said that the staff has been kindly, but that adjusting to an institutional lifestyle has been tough.

“It’s an infringement on your freedoms,” he said, adding that he constantly felt “on edge.”

Moments later, an administrator interrupted Woods’ interview with The Associated Press and ejected a reporter from the grounds. She said residents could not meet with a reporter there without permission from the organization that manages the facility.

More than 6,200 residents and patients were evacuated from 47 nursing and adult care homes as a result of the Oct. 29 storm, according to New York state’s Health Department.

Two thirds of those patients left after Sandy had already struck, meaning many were hustled out of flooded, muck-filled buildings in such a hurry that they were unable to bring belongings or clothing. Some left without identification.

At least six nursing homes and six adult care homes in New York City and Long Island remained closed as of Friday because of storm damage, according to state health officials. Seven other nursing homes had accepted some patients back, but not all.

The Health Department was unable to provide the AP with a total number of people still displaced, but said it had sent 500 adult home residents to four temporary facilities, including the Milestone Residence.

“These operators, in concert with the state Department of Health, ensured and continue to ensure that residents’ safety and care needs continue to be met,” department spokesman Bill Schwarz said in an email.

He said the state had recently provided money to buy beds for the displaced Belle Harbor residents.

A shipment of beds also arrived at Bishop Hucles last week. The nursing home is owned by Episcopal Health Services Inc. but is being sold to an ownership group that includes the operator of the Rockaway Care Center.

Episcopal Health spokeswoman Penny Chin said staff members from Rockaway Care had followed their patients to Bishop Hucles, and administrators believe there are enough personnel to care for patients safely.

“Is it ideal? Well, no,” she said. She said patients should be able to return to the Rockaway Care Center in a matter of weeks.

Chin said she was aware that a patient had wandered off, but did not know the details.

Asked whether any effort had been made to transfer patients in a less-crowded facility, Chin said she wasn’t sure, but noted that medical centers throughout the city are bulging.

St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, the health system’s flagship facility, had itself taken on 200 evacuated nursing home patients after the storm _ an outsized number for a hospital with 257 beds.

Rockaway Care’s administrator, Michael Melnicke, who owns several nursing homes in New York City, did not respond to messages.

New York state’s long-term care ombudsman, Mark Miller, said his office was attempting to get inspectors out to facilities dealing with evacuees.

He said his office already had some concerns about how the evacuations were handled. Initially, he said, operators of some facilities were unreachable, leaving the families of displaced residents in the dark about where relatives had been taken.

It was unclear when residents might be able to return to Belle Harbor Manor, which flooded with several feet of water.

Few if any residents have been able to fetch their possessions since they were rushed out without notice the day after the flood. Some are still spending most days in the clothes they had on when they left, and have to rely on donations from volunteers for changes of socks and underwear. Others have been unable to receive mail.

Rabbi Samuel Aschkenazi, president of the nonprofit company that runs Belle Harbor Manor, told an AP reporter he had been ill and didn’t know what was happening to evacuated residents. He referred questions to another board member, who did not return a phone message.

Belle Harbor Manor resident Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, a retired teacher in her early 90s, said that after spending three weeks in an emergency shelter inside a former armory, residents were sent to a hotel in Brooklyn’s crime-plagued East New York section, where they were advised not to go outside because of safety concerns.

After weeks of sleeping three to a room, they were informed they would be moving again, to the grounds of the mental hospital.

“The people here are kind. But there is a tone of strictness,” said Eisenstein-Drachler, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University. “I consider myself a mentally healthy person. What am I doing here?”

Constance Brown, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Community Living, the organization that manages Milestone, said that before the storm, the company had been shutting down Milestone and transferring its residents to apartments as part of a shift away from institutional living.

But Brown defended the site as a temporary home for the evacuees, saying they should be back in their former home by mid-January.

“CL Milestone and Belle Harbor Adult Home have residents with similar diagnosis, therefore it is not an inappropriate placement as staff is familiar and trained to deal with this population,” she said in an email.

Geoff Lieberman, executive director of the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled, an advocacy group, said finding facilities to accept displaced people in a disaster is a challenge.

“There is no one adult home that has anywhere near the capacity that you really need to safely and comfortably accept 100 or 200 other residents,” he said.

Lieberman said some have wound up in better settings than others. Residents of the Park Inn Home, a 181-bed residence in Rockaway Park, were transferred to a retreat house in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, on a site overlooking the Hudson River.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “People are still sleeping in cots. And that’s been hard for everybody. But the food has been good, and I think aside from the fact that they don’t have a bed to sleep on, they have been comfortable.”

– David Caruso

My World Premiere

Hello, world.  It’s me, Kiki.  The one who parodies our popular culture, doesn’t watch television or listen to commercial radio.  I don’t buy InTouch Weekly (but will peek during a pedicure if the NY Times crossword puzzle isn’t nearby) and certainly didn’t mean to make a fuss.  Really.  However I think it’s funny that all this time I fought the label of “burlesque performer” because I already thought that, to describe my work, it is not an entirely accurate pigeon hole.  And here I am making the tabloid news because I am honest-to-God withdrawing from it and moving on to what most of my mentors and close creative genius friends have suggested all along: a one woman show.  To be honest, the concept doesn’t quite grab me.  People might think it is stand up.  And let’s face it, going to see stand up in New York these days, much like many things in this ever-evolving new New York, is just not what it used to be. That just isn’t going to work.

So instead, and based on the uncensored concept that made the Sunday Show such an underground-cum-public success, I am going to reconnect with my unique style of entertaining the public through topical, somewhat controversial performances and observational humor  through a new “One-ish Woman Show”.  I am always inspired by how the way I see the world translates, with the help of spectacle performances, to and before an interested audience.  It’s medicine in a sick and twisted world.  And you’ll see real burlesque (but not from me – the adorable outfits will be staying on from now on!) Admittance will not be selective but instead, limited.

The new year will bring, as usual, more unexpected performance art than you can shake a dollar at.  And speaking of, I’m still not going to charge $1000 to see it (ah-hem, you know you are, venue I’m referring to).   The type of art that people can afford and relate to is what I want to continue to provide in 2011.  I have a fire lit beneath me, and it’s burning off my garter belt.

Perezhilton.com neglected to mention that The Sunday Show had a residency at The Slipper Room on Orchard Street in New York City before it closed.  We are doing the anniversary show at Ella because construction on the new theater is pending.  I, of course, would love to bring something back to the space that James and Camille Habacker created to delight audiences and give performers a space to work out their concepts.  We’ll see how things progress.

 

Isn’t this what everyone dreams of? We’re the stars of our own made-for-TV movie.
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