Serving the Underserved
In the early 1970s, Harold DeRienzo ’75 started volunteering with the College’s social action group, and today is still working to provide a better life for thousands of underprivileged New Yorkers.
Just a few miles southwest of Manhattan’s bucolic Riverdale campus are some of the city’s most impoverished communities and the poorest congressional district in the country. The neighborhoods in the south Bronx have struggled with poverty since the 1970s when nearly all but the poorest residents moved out of the area. Today, the nation’s continuing economic struggles have hit this area particularly hard.
Building on its Lasallian mission of serving the poor, Manhattan College has organized countless volunteer groups to work in these communities throughout the years. In the early 1970s, Harold DeRienzo ’75 started volunteering with the College’s social action group. Nearly 40 years later, DeRienzo is still dedicated to social action.
“Without the volunteer opportunities available to me at Manhattan College, I would not be where I am today,” he says.
He is now president and CEO of Banana Kelly, a community development organization serving the south Bronx, and is also the general counsel for the Parodneck Foundation, which focuses on housing and community development throughout New York City. During the course of his career, he has worked to provide a better life for thousands of underprivileged New Yorkers.
DeRienzo helped to found Banana Kelly in 1976 shortly after graduating from Manhattan. The organization, affectionately named after the curved section of Kelly Street in the south Bronx, worked to rehabilitate buildings that had been abandoned. The group began with the renovation of three buildings on Kelly Street and eventually grew to become one of the most successful community development corporations in the country.
“At its height, we had 125 employees, four offices and functioned as a multiservice community development and human services organization,” DeRienzo says.
He left Banana Kelly in the 1980s to attend law school and joined the Parodneck Foundation. This organization began in the 1930s as a cooperative that sought to provide low-cost milk to New Yorkers in effort to combat the high milk prices that were an impediment to the health of inner city youth. By the 1960s, lack of milk was no longer an issue, so the organization transitioned into focusing on housing, but its mission of serving low-income New Yorkers remained.
Without the volunteer opportunities available to me at Manhattan College, I would not be where I am today.
“When I took over, the foundation was in transition, and I was able to develop programs that were unique and allowed the organization to play a leading role in many aspects of New York City housing and community development,” he says.
Among the initiatives DeRienzo implemented at the Parodneck Foundation was the development of the city’s only home improvement program targeted exclusively to senior citizen homeowners. He also worked to create a program for remediation of predatory loans in conjunction with Fannie Mae, which became a model that Fannie Mae would eventually employ in 17 other cities.
In 2002, DeRienzo was asked to return to Banana Kelly after the organization had been driven to the brink of collapse due to deficient leadership. He has since made the organization viable again and is in the process of expanding it.
He now splits his time between Banana Kelly and the Parodneck Foundation and finds that the services provided by these organizations are needed more than ever due to the ongoing recession.
“This recession has hit our residents particularly hard,” DeRienzo says. “At Banana Kelly, we have a program that works with disabled and homeless people and families. It works like a Section 8 program, with support services mostly geared toward assisting participants to secure jobs. From the period November 1, 2009 through October 31, 2010, the average income of our participants declined by 46 percent due mostly to loss of jobs.”
As much as DeRienzo has accomplished throughout his career, he believes the most important work remains to be done.
“As bad as things were when I began in this field, even though the physical environment has been rebuilt, the social fabric and the economic realities of the inner city are more tentative now than at any time I have personally experienced,” DeRienzo says.