Seated next to two large coolers filled with bagged lunches, Tonie Dreher, a Case Coordinator for CASES’ newSTART, watches as her colleagues put on coats and gather newSTART participants who will help distribute the lunches to those in need in Harlem—a community initiative they call Project Give Back.
“I always tell my people in newSTART to assist from where you are,” Tonie says. “Don’t look down on anyone. And I try to model what that looks like.”
Project Give Back started in June 2018 during the month of Ramadan. Tonie, a practicing Muslim, says that one focus of the holy month is Sadaqah, the Islamic principle of charitable giving. She wanted her newSTART participants to understand that they were actually fortunate to be in a CASES program where they had access to such resources as individual and group counseling, job-readiness training, mental health services (at CASES’ Nathaniel Clinic), and referrals to other community providers. She brainstormed with participants—mostly men—about things they could do to help their community.
“Have you ever been to 125th Street?” she recalls one of the men asking. “There’s always someone who needs help or something to eat.”
Now, twice every month, newSTART staff members prepare bagged lunches while participants attend the program’s group counseling sessions. After participants have had lunch themselves, they prepare to go out and give to the community. Though newSTART is a short-term alternative-to-incarceration lasting no more than five days, participants who complete the program have the option to continue to work with a Case Coordinator, attend group sessions, and/or engage in services at the Nathaniel Clinic.
It doesn’t take long for visitors to recognize the strong sense of family shared between staff and participants in the CASES office. Joining the Project Give Back team today is Peer Intern Toshia Parks, who will leave her newborn with CASES staff as she volunteers. Lauren Giwa, Director of newSTART, has also brought her ninth-grade daughter.
“My mom was a social worker,” Lauren says. “She would bring me to work for things like this, and I want to do the same with my daughter so that she knows what service looks like.”
It’s partly her faith that pushes Tonie to serve those in need. It was while she was incarcerated that she converted to Islam. She says the discipline helped her get her footing in the journey to recovery. A native of South Carolina, Toni candidly discusses experiences with homelessness and substance use she encountered when she moved to Harlem more than 20 years ago.
“I sold crack so I didn’t have to sell my body,” she says. “This work is my way of helping the same community that I harmed when I was selling drugs.”
Though she and her husband now call Queens home, Tonie makes it her mission to give back to the Harlem community anytime she can. As a central figure in the robust CASES’ newSTART team, she now gets to share her story with newSTART participants in her work. Her dedication to Project Give Back has even led her to get certified in food preparation.
Today, the Project Give Back team will walk about four blocks before the bagged lunches nearly disappear from the coolers. The newSTART participants are eager to help and lead the group to places where they know people in need will be. The team enters the subway terminal, walks near a library, and goes under an overpass, not at all shy about approaching people on the street. Toshia, the program’s Peer Intern, talks with a young woman after offering her a bagged lunch. As their conversation unfolds, Toshia finds herself sharing advice with the woman on how to communicate with a case worker—someone from a different agency—about her needs and the opportunities available to her.
Before the team left the office, Tonie waved them away with a smile. Due to a health condition, it is difficult for Tonie to walk long distances with the street team like she used to.
“They don’t let me go out anymore,” she says, “but I can’t tell you how many people come to [CASES’] front desk and ask for Mrs. Tonie because they remember me from when I used to go out and give donations.”
CASES’ newSTART provides short-term alternatives to jail for men and women age 18 and above who would otherwise face sentences of 30 days or fewer due to frequent low-level criminal involvement. To learn more about newSTART participants and services, please visit https://www.cases.org/newstart/.