Meet Your Neighbor: Joel Ponder

My stepmom used to work in Jackson Heights' Bruson Building, back in 2008. I was new to the country and spoke no English. One day I got turned around in the building and noticed an office labeled “Queens Community House.”  I asked the receptionist inside for directions, and after helping me find my way, she told me QCH offered free English classes. Eager to advance my education, I took an entrance exam that same day.

As a student in the class, I not only improved my English but also joined the Action Group, where I became closer with QCH staff and other community leaders. Our group’s first notable campaign helped increase the green space in Jackson Heights' Travers Park.

When I graduated from the class, I was proficient in English and a leader in the student community. Over the next few years, QCH would offer me my first part-time job entering program data. I continued to volunteer in the Action Group and was eventually offered a position as Housing Specialist and Action Group Organizer. In 2014, our group united with Queens residents in a borough-wide campaign to prevent Major League Soccer from building a new stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Over time, our team faced a number of challenges, including budget cuts and a devastating fire, which displaced us for years. Together, with the support of our community, we rebuilt our programming and continued our outreach efforts.

Today, eleven years after my first QCH English class, I am now a Senior Housing Specialist at QCH's Forest Hills Community Center, where I supervise another former ESOL student. Together, we help people apply for affordable housing, prevent evictions, manage their finances and access the services and tools they need to improve their lives.

Over the years, QCH staff have showed me what it means to invest in people for the long-term. Participants may come to my office with a housing issue, but they leave with information about SNAP, home-delivered meals, immigration counseling and other resources. Most importantly, they leave knowing they have someone to turn to during challenging times.  It's my goal that all of our participants feel supported, have a voice, and experience equal access to opportunities. It’s the same approach staff used with me on my first day at QCH, and I’m honored to be able to reciprocate.

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