Good Neighbors: Milvi Vehik of The Henry Street Settlement
September 5, 2014

In our Good Neighbors column, Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, introduces us to the Lower East Side communities she works with every day: 

Today Emily speaks with Milvi Vehik, the director of the Good Companions Senior Center for The Henry Street Settlement.

Milvi Vehik, Director of Good Companions Senior Center at the Henry Street Settlement. Photo courtesy of Milvi Vehik.

Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does.

Founded in 1893 by Progressive reformer Lillian Wald, Henry Street Settlement opens doors of opportunity by providing essential social service, arts and health care programs from 17 program sites on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Distinguished by a profound connection to its neighbors, a willingness to address new problems with swift and innovative solutions and a strong record of accomplishment, Henry Street challenges the effects of urban poverty by helping families achieve better lives for themselves and their children.

The agency serves 50,000 individuals each year through youth education and employment programs, senior services, job training and placement programs, primary and behavioral health care clinics, homeless shelters and a performing and arts training program.

The Good Companions Senior Center, one of four divisions under Senior Services, is our multilingual and multicultural senior center which has been welcoming members for over 60 years.  Building on the internal synergies provided by Henry Street Settlement, our holistic programming approach reflects a cultural tapestry of recreational, education and health promoting activities.  We are also one of the few senior centers serving lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, as well as offering a Sunday program including lunch service.

Where are you (or your family) from?

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela where I lived until the age of 16.  My father was born in Estonia and my mother in the Ukraine.  After WWII, although their countries had been on opposite sides, my parents met in an American refugee camp where they married and waited with great uncertainty for the chance to emigrate to the United States.  Although many of their fellow refugees were granted the necessary paperwork, by the time my parent’s number came up the United States’ quota for accepting refugees was filled.  The only country still offering a new opportunity was Venezuela.  So after receiving the equivalent of $10 apiece to start a new life, they set sail for Caracas where they waited many years for someone to sponsor them so they could come to the United States.  After a brief stay in Philadelphia, they moved to the borough of Queens.  In spite of language limitations and scant resources, my father worked three jobs to save up for the house they ultimately called home for the rest of their lives.  Given the diversity of our background, several languages were spoken at home and our acclimation to a new country was always interwoven with similar individuals in our neighborhood and new life, while always maintaining a supportive link with relatives who remained or scattered throughout Europe and South America. Later on, through marriage to a native Italian, another thread was woven into my heritage tapestry as my extended family expanded with new relatives in Italy.

What inspired you to get involved in the lives of your neighbors?

Thinking back on those early days in the United States, all I can remember is how my strange name, and the fact that I barely spoke English always made me feel like an outsider particularly in school. I was frequently introduced by my teachers as our “new foreign friend”.  Being left back by a year because I did not speak the language only made me more determined to excel and make up for lost time.  As the years went by and I began to achieve many of my goals, I frequently found myself both consciously and sometimes by chance,  making career choices that put me in contact with individuals  who were  “walking in the same shoes” that I had walked in years ago.  With time, as the business world become more and more of a global arena, my background became an asset.  Although I still considered myself a true representative of the melting pot that was so often referred to, I found myself gravitating toward volunteer or job opportunities where my experience could ease the transition for non-English speaking visitors or members of the community.  This was a pivotal focus when I was working toward a nursing degree in underserved, ethnic communities, and later on during many years in International Sales and Marketing both here and abroad. I could still remember some of the struggles my parents encountered as they persevered in a new environment while still intent on preserving a sense of heritage and tradition for their children.  Certainly, working in my current capacity as Program Director of Good Companions Senior Center, my background and empathy for diverse cultures has served as an invaluable asset in not only communicating but establishing a bond of relevance with the ethnic population that we serve.

When did you first come to the Lower East Side?

My first memories are of visiting the Lower East Side as a tourist – Little Italy, Chinatown and Orchard Street. In later years, I often visited some of my husband’s relatives who had come to the United States in the early 60’s.  My most recent contact with this part of the city was several years ago when I began teaching  ESL classes and Nutrition courses for organizations in the neighborhood, including Madison Street where I currently work.

What makes this neighborhood special?

Where do I begin?  From the obvious perspective, it is a historical gem.  Anyone who falls in love with New York needs to walk the streets of the Lower East Side to sense the history of this city, a particular era and the people and nationalities that have contributed to its growth, evolution, and standing in the world.  It is a veritable classroom for anyone interested in architecture, gastronomy, religion, and small industry. Even if so much has been lost or faded into the background due to progress and gentrification, occasionally you can still spot a glimpse of some faded sign or architectural detail that can transport you to another time.  Inevitably,  one  way or the other, the progress of our country will always be built on the shoulders of those who walked these streets.

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator