Project Find not only enriches but celebrates the lives of its senior citizens.
Executive director Mark Jennings still marvels at the wide variety of interesting seniors he serves. “We have some family members of Miles Davis, a gentleman who was in the WWE, singers, poets, people who have really contributed to society,” said Jennings, in a recent interview with Straus News. “One gentleman I met when I first started was actually drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the ‘70s and always talks about his baseball career.”
In addition to providing senior housing, Project Find is committed to homeless outreach programming, providing access to food, clothing, psychiatric and medical care. Sixty percent of their residents, who are all 55 and above and come from New York, have at one time experienced homelessness.
Jennings, who has close to 15 years of experience working in supportive housing in the city, was appointed as executive director of the program after serving as its associate executive director since 2018. A native of Washington, D.C., his impressive resume includes earning a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Howard University, an MDIV from Harvard Divinity School and an MSW from Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.
His future plans include having tenants participate in TikTok dances with high school and college students as well as erecting phone booths for the homeless. “Not the Superman phone booths,” he clarified. “But the fancy Google Office ones.”
You began working at Project Find in 2018. How did you first get involved in the organization?
I’ve been in supportive housing for almost 15 years now here in New York. Project Find I came to after spending 10 years at an organization called Community Access, where I was working with supportive housing in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. This gave me the opportunity to come in as the associate executive director about five years ago. And with David Gillcrist retiring in January, the board voted me in as the executive director.
What does your role as executive director entail?
It’s everything. Obviously fiscal management, making sure we’re profitable and doing things correctly in that area. Human resources, making sure that employees are taken care of and that we’re hiring the right people for the services we provide. Helping with the imagination of some of the programming that we do in our older adult centers and our housing. And just leading the organization into the future, bringing in technology, being able to help the organization with systems that allow us to modernize not just on the employee side, but also within the buildings. Like, for example, we’ve been going after grants to get tablets for the seniors.
What are some initiatives you’ve worked on there that you’re most proud of?
There’s several. One just wrapped up, which is our partnership with Town Hall and the public high school inside of Town Hall Theater. And so I worked with Town Hall to imagine a program where the youth ... there’s some juniors in a social justice theater class who came over to interview the seniors at our Woodstock location on 43rd Street. And I went into the classroom and taught a little bit about housing policy in the city and homelessness. And the students’ goal was to create a theatrical performance with those stories and honor them in that way. And most of those stories were about people’s journey from wherever they were, into homelessness in many cases and then into the Woodstock hotel. One of the people they were able to interview is a person who actually wrestled in WrestleMania and happened to fall on hard times and found his way to the Woodstock hotel and has been living out his life there.
How have you expanded your homeless outreach?
We brought in the Samuels Foundation to expand the homeless outreach program we have. Initially, when I came five years ago, we primarily provided showers and food at the center. And I brought in the psychiatric services, not just to be able to help people with that service, but also to expedite people getting their housing application, since that’s one of the things that required. In the city’s homeless housing application, you need a psych evaluation.
Tell us about some of the classes and programming Project Find offers.
The classes run the gamut from card games and bingo, the staples, but we also leverage partnerships with the community. Our Alvin Ailey class is well received. Their board is invested in it and they come in and do low-impact aerobics. We have DJs come in for parties. We are big on intergenerational programming and have high school students come in and help older adults with tech.
Where do your volunteers come from?
Prior to COVID, we had a very robust volunteer program, people coming in from Forbes, Bank of America, various churches. We still have folks coming in, like people who used to work at Forbes bringing flowers. They brought in tulips for some of the tenants. We just had a couple who donated some artwork for our new tenants that used to hang at Lincoln Center as housewarming gifts.
You have degrees in journalism, divinity and social work. What made you switch career paths?
As a journalist, one of the things that I always found myself doing was interviewing people who were in some sort of oppressed situation. And I found those advocacy journalism stories to be really exciting and interesting. But then, at the same time, you do all the reporting and then you have to leave them. You can’t really do much about it. A lot of that reporting led me to figuring out ways to be able to take the next step in helping people.
To learn more, visit www.projectfind.org