Accidentally sauntering into a city office on Church Street in search for materials for her small preschool, Gretchen Buchenholz stumbled upon a horrific scene, shocking images that continue to haunt her even 32 years after her first honest exposure to the devastating effects of homelessness in New York City. The room unearthed children and families warehoused like bulk produce stored in the back of a supermarket. A handful of bare-mattressed cribs lined the room where four to five infants, unrelated to one another, crowded each mattress. Many of the babies slept without diapers, saturated in one another’s vomit and feces, while toddlers helplessly banged on the thin door that separated the poor homeless families from the wealthy city employees. Halfway down the door, knuckle marks had been pounded into the wood, evidence of countless hours of begging for food and attention with no acknowledgement.
However, more than a simple acknowledgement would soon be granted to the children who needed it most by Buchenholz herself, who immediately purchased loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter and gallons of juice in attempt to relieve the hunger and dehydration of the suffering children and families. Around the block, Buchenholz dialed the numbers of Stanley Brezenoff, the mayor’s first commissioner at the time; Jack Doyle, deputy director of the Red Cross; and Sarah Rimer, journalist at the New York Times. The following day, on November 19, 1984, Rimer published a front-page story exposing details of the same devastating scene Buchenholz encountered.
In expeditious response to the visible needs of New York City’s homeless children and families, Buchenholz sought to design a program to “defend the right of every child to a joyful and nurturing childhood.” After searching for financial help to start this envisioned non-profit organization, Buchenholz received help from many bankers by simply asking, “We want to respond to this crisis; would you like to respond to this with us?” In 1986, after realizing many people shared her desire to provide aid to the most vulnerable families, Buchenholz founded Association to Benefit Children (ABC).
32 years later, at 10:35am on a Saturday at the Echo Park facility in East Harlem, Buchenholz travels from classroom to classroom ensuring all staff members, teachers, and volunteers are adequately prepared for the children who scamper through the door at 11am sharp. Inside her office, directly across from the classrooms, sit a pair of slippers nestled under her desk, suggesting Buchenholz spends countless days and nights advocating for the rights of children impacted by homelessness, hunger, abuse, and neglect.
One of five facilities, the Echo Park building opened during the financial crisis of 2008 providing children with a nutritious meal and a variety of classes including English as a Second Language, Computer Skills, and Drama. “We never know exactly how many families are coming, but regardless, we staff each classroom with volunteers and staff from all walks of life,” Buchenholz added.
Suddenly, the clock strikes 11 and the crowd of children lined up outside in the 30 degree weather is finally welcomed into the building with the friendly smiles and embraces of both Buchenholz and her colleagues. A small toddler bundled up in a purple coat and matching scarf clearly recognizes the friendly face as she unlatches from her mother’s hand and into Buchenholz’s arms. A boy around 13-years-old proceeds to high-five Buchenholz as she welcomes him back, while complimenting his vibrant red beanie. Child after child, mother after mother enters the building, each interaction with Buchenholz unlike the last, personalized and unique.
Always referring to herself in respect to the community as a whole, it is clear Buchenholz, mother of six, invariably puts the needs of others before her own. “Here at ABC, we see ourselves as champions for the rights of children, for every child,” she proudly exclaims.
While maintaining the responsibilities of an advocate for the purpose of supporting and defending countless children reaps countless rewards, the most rewarding moments for Buchenholz also reveal themselves to be the simplest. “Everyday, at every level, there is pleasure in this work. From the tiniest thing a child does like walking with alternate feet, using the thumb and index finger to pick something up, almost saying ‘bubble’ but not quite,” Buchenholz affectionately declared.
These simple moments reflect her own childhood, where the emphasis on compassion and family illuminated Buchenholz’s boundless love and empathy. “I grew up poor and didn’t know it. However, I grew up with compassion for every creature including people, and that still resides within me,” she commented.
Her compassion for the most vulnerable families coexists with an unrelenting aspiration to reform the affordable housing crisis. “We have been losing affordable housing rapidly through two administrations; it is the reason we had 26,000 homeless children sleeping in shelters last night,” Buchenholz noted. In response to the scarcity of low-income housing since the 1980’s, ABC created replicable models for transitional housing by transforming a neglected East Harlem building into a supportive housing program.
Prompted by her shocking encounter with the deplorable conditions homeless families face coupled with the alarming statistic of 1 in every 3 children in New York City living in poverty, Gretchen Buchenholz continues to tenaciously search for solutions to the problems faced by the most vulnerable communities by providing food, shelter, and education to those who have lost everything, including hope. Through her strong belief in the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of the desire to evoke change, Buchenholz will continue to “speak out on behalf of vulnerable children, amplifying each small voice into a resounding chorus calling for change.” And she refuses to stop until this much-needed change is finally achieved.