If you see Elbert Copeland out wearing a red uniform, he’s probably inspecting the streets to make sure they’ve been cleaned.
Copeland is a supervisor for ACE Programs for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that trains and employs homeless New Yorkers.
He started out in the field sweeping and cleaning the streets, then the organization hired him to do “quality control.” “I just go around and make sure everything is nice, tidy and clean,” he said, “make sure there’s no complaints and everybody’s happy.”
Copeland said he was “down in the trenches” prior to getting in touch with ACE’s program.
“It put me back on the right track and gave me a new outlook,” he said. “It gave me a completely different way of thinking and train of thought.”
In the three years since he’s worked with ACE, Copeland considers himself a more compassionate person. His favorite part of the job is that he gets to see all of the different communities in New York City.
“Queens by far is the most complicated only because you can walk down one block and be somewhere else totally,” he said. “It’s a little confusing, but I’ll get it.”
Copeland, who now lives in Richmond Hill, said businesses often come out to thank him and his team for their work. Once residents and business owners see them a few times, they recognize their service.
“When you get one little thank you, it moves you on,” he said. “It keeps you going.
“We really try to do our best to change people’s lives,” he added. “You have to have something different you’re aiming for.”
When asked how long he plans to work for ACE, Copeland chuckled and said, “Until the day of my demise.”
At the age of 29, while serving a prison sentence, Raymond realized he was suffering from decades old trauma. From the time he can remember up until 11 years of age, Raymond lived in an extremely hostile environment, and only years later did he realize the effect it had had on him. His younger brother’s father had abused their mother regularly, in front of Raymond.
“My brothers were young,” he remembers. “They didn’t have to see my mom get violently harmed. It really played a part on me. I wasn’t very effective in school and I didn’t know what to do. When I look back. I remember I was preoccupied with finding a way to help my mother—to protect and save her. When I explain to certain people the actual details of the violence that went on and how consistent it was, they are astonished.”
“I was preoccupied with finding a way to help my mother—to protect and save her.”
Despite the traumatic environment, Raymond was a dutiful and loving older brother. His mother worked a morning and evening shift and in between the shifts she would come home to tell Raymond what he needed to do to take care of his brothers. He fed and bathed them and cleaned the house on a daily basis, all before he was even nine years old.
Into his teenage years, despite a positive relationship with his brothers, the trauma had placed a distance between him and his mother. “I would rather be on the streets than be home,” Raymond recalls. “I had no dreams. I had no hope. I was hurting constantly, I was just hurting and hurting and I didn’t know how to say it, or if I did say it, it didn’t seem that anyone cared.”
In his 30’s and 40’s Raymond had a son and a daughter, whom he loves dearly, but he still was having major struggles and setbacks, bouncing between housing and homelessness and coming in and out of jail for extended periods of time. Despite what the world told him, Raymond clung to his belief that he was a loving person. “I had acquired this long criminal history,” he remembers, “and judges and district attorneys and lawyers are saying, ‘He’s a menace to society.’ And I’m saying to myself, I’m nowhere near what you’re saying I am, but I can’t make anyone see. I just know I’m a kind and loving, affectionate person, but my experiences that I’ve been forced to be a part of have played a major part on my demeanor and my rearing. I had to survive.”
“I’m saying to myself, I’m nowhere near what you’re saying I am, but I can’t make anyone see.”
In January 2016, at the age of 54, Raymond came to ACE from a substance use treatment program. He recognized a number of personal barriers were holding him back. “I wasn’t confident about having much success with my criminal history,” he recalls. “I’m not very computer literate. I had fallen off with my education, my reading and math.”
With a full schedule of classes and work experience training, Raymond redoubled his commitment to achieving his goals. Raymond says, “I had to clean the streets. I wasn’t particularly crazy about it, but I cleaned the streets and I did a job like I would do in my home. It gave me something to look forward to financially and I was able to give my daughter and my son a few dollars every week.”
Through ACE’s community internship program, Raymond balanced a maintenance internship at a local church with his schedule of classes. The staff there was so impressed with his work and attitude that in July 2016, after 6 months in ACE’s initial program, they offered him a full-time position. Just three months after accepting the job, Raymond had saved enough money to move into his own apartment. “I’m content with what I’m doing right now,” he says. It’s keeping me emotionally alive, keeping me spiritually alive, it’s keeping me mentally alive. I’m happy right now. “
Raymond has now been employed for nine months and in his own apartment for six months. He has a great relationship with his 20 year-old son and is back in his 10 year old daughter’s life, rebuilding bonds. He counts himself fortunate and is incredibly thankful to everyone who helped him get here by supporting ACE.
“I thank God for you and for this organization”
“I was in the cell and I was praying to God, if I could just walk down the block again. And here it is, not even a year later and I have my own apartment. I have a job and am back in mainstream society. I wonder if you truly know what you have done. I thank God for you and I thank God for this organization.”
Kendall was adopted at birth. He grew up in a loving home in Richmond, Virginia. He and his family were regulars at church and his parents were, in his words, “big on work ethic and education.” Kendall describes his upbringing as healthy, but as he got into his late teenage years he and his friends were introduced to alcohol and marijuana. “I went wrong,” Kendall says, “when I decided I liked the feeling of drinking and smoking more than getting an education and working to further my future.”
Kendall had some odd jobs after high school and had a son in his twenties. He loved his son more than anything but couldn’t balance substance use with the responsibilities of adulthood. After missing a court date in Richmond in 1996, he doubled down on his troubled lifestyle. Rather than accept a mandatory three to four-month jail sentence for missing court, Kendall got on a bus out of town. With that begin twenty years of living on street, using, and just getting by.
Reflecting on those years Kendall says, “You let the world pass you by. You’re basically living off the crumbs that society throws away. You look back, and you’re old. You’ve got aches and pains. You haven’t built anything, haven’t saved anything. You have regrets.”
Almost twenty years passed. Kendall visited home once or twice, but his family, knowing he wasn’t in a good place, wasn’t ready to welcome him back. “I missed my father’s funeral,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even aware of it and his whole side of the family lost respect for me. In 2014, Kendall decided enough was enough and he was going to get clean. He joined a treatment program and started to build momentum. In July 2016, Kendall was referred to ACE. He remembers those first days working on ACE maintenance crews, “They put me to work. My body wasn’t used to it. It took a while, but I was glad to have the opportunity and now I thank God every day.”
After almost three months in ACE’s initial program, Project Comeback, Kendall got called into the ACE Job Developer’s office. A local restaurant had reached out looking to fill a position as a porter. The Job Developer wanted to send Kendall for the interview. Kendall was nervous but he went for the interview and got the job. “It’s nothing fancy,” he says, “but I am very happy with my job. It’s the first job I’ve had in twenty years.
Now that he is stable for the first time in years, Kendall is beginning to heal old wounds. “My family is still in Richmond. My son is all grown up and I am trying to patch things up. I’ve burnt a lot of bridges, but I think I can repair the ones with my family. I really consider myself lucky. Thank you.”
The Queens Chronicle wrote a story to highlight the work ACE is doing to keep the community clean. Council Member Koslowitz contracted ACE to provide sanitation services in her district and the community is noticing the difference. Read the full story through the link below.
This video follows Herbert, Ricky and Donnell who have made incredible comebacks through ACE. These successes are made possible because of supporters like you. Make a life-changing gift below. Thank you to Loch Phillipps and Off Ramp Films for their beautiful work on this project.
Articles and studies are published on a rolling basis that demonstrate philanthropic giving’s direct relationship to happiness and success. Here is is an op-ed from the New York Times about exactly that. And here is an article from Science Magazine that cites a Harvard study shows buying gifts for yourself negligibly increases happiness, but giving to others dramatically increases positive feelings for yourself and others.
#GivingTuesday is a chance for us to grab the attention of the public and do some true good in our city, in our world, and in our own lives. Giving will make you happier, it will improve the lives of homeless and impoverished, and it will spur true change in our city. Spread the word about #GivingTuesday.