New York Times Neediest Cases

After 85 Years in East Harlem, a Routine That Keeps Her Going - The New York Times

Most Tuesday mornings, Marta Benitez walks from her apartment on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 111th Street to the food pantry at St. Cecilia’s Church on East 105th Street. With other volunteers, she assembles bags of nonperishable items to be handed out to members of the community.

“I can walk 20 blocks and I don’t get tired,” Ms. Benitez, 95, said. “Who at my age can do that?”

On Wednesday mornings, she again walks to St. Cecilia’s, this time to stand in its open doorway, greeting clients as they collect their bags of onions, carrots, rice, canned soup and cranberry juice concentrate.

“I’m the clown in here; I make people laugh,” she said. “That’s my purpose in life.”

Ms. Benitez’s positive attitude has not wavered, even after the loss of both her husband and only child to cancer.

“It’s still raw,” she said of her daughter’s death, in September 2014. Since then, Ms. Benitez, who is barely five feet tall, said she had lost 30 pounds in her grief over the loss.

She is determined to continue volunteering and attending Mass at St. Cecilia’s in East Harlem, where she has lived on the same street for 85 years.

Ms. Benitez left Puerto Rico when she was 10 to join her sister in New York. She met her future husband, Manuel, in the neighborhood flower shop where he worked. They married in 1966.

“It was a good neighborhood,” she said. “People were poor, but we were happy. We took care of each other’s kids. But now, with all these tall buildings, you don’t know people anymore.”

Her daughter, Angelina, was baptized and went to school at St. Cecilia’s. In her 40s, Ms. Benitez traveled widely, to Egypt, Sweden, the Vatican and other religious sites in Europe.

“Traveling was my vice,” she said.

In 1987, her husband learned he had cancer, which had metastasized throughout his body. Ms. Benitez left her job as a caseworker at the Puerto Rican Community Development Project to care for her husband. Mr. Benitez died within four months.

“Dealing with my husband’s sickness gave me strength,” she said. “I went through hell with him.”

Twenty-seven years later, Angelina learned she had ovarian cancer.

Ms. Benitez said: “It’s hard to see your daughter die. I closed her eyes. I said, ‘Thank God she isn’t suffering anymore.’ ”

In October, she checked herself into the hospital because her stomach was hurting and it would not stop. Tests were inconclusive.

“I lost my daughter, the love of my life,” she said. “They say it could have been my nerves.”

She had volunteered at the Church of St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem, working with young people who had AIDS, but she does not like to commute there on her own. Angelina used to go with her.

She remains a fixture at St. Cecilia’s, however.

“She’s the spirit, the light,” said Flor Abad, who works at the church’s food pantry. “She’s the mother to everybody. People come here just to hug her.”

Ms. Benitez said volunteering kept her from succumbing to sorrow.

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“You have that pain, your mind moves so fast,” she said. “But you have to live through it. You have to have something to work for, or else you go crazy.”

Ms. Benitez visits often with her granddaughter, Erica Williams, and her great-grandson, Bryce, who live in the Bronx. Medicaid pays for a home health attendant, who visits three times a week. Ms. Benitez relies on federal housing subsidies and less than $1,000 in monthly income from Social Security and food stamps.

Her apartment is on the 25th floor. Cold wind cuts through the windows in the winter, and she tapes up sheets of plastic to keep the draft out.

In October, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $69.68 from the fund to buy a portable heater, which Ms. Benitez keeps in her bedroom.

Despite her losses, Ms. Benitez considers herself lucky.

“You can’t think of the bad things that have happened; think of the good things that are going to happen,” she said. “There are people that are worse off than you.

“I have been blessed.”

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