SOUTHERN BROOKLYN – On Friday, March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the ‘NYS on PAUSE’ executive order. All non-essential businesses were to close and large gatherings of people were to be banned. That same night, Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus and ten volunteers delivered hot meals to her constituents. And she has been delivering hot meals for nine consecutive weeks – no pandemic was going to stop Frontus from giving back.
Frontus– who has been representing the 46th Assembly District that covers Coney Island and Sea Gate, as well as parts of Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights, and Gravesend since 2018 — is a first-generation American. Her mother and father were born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She was born in Crown Heights and is the eldest of four children. In 1985, her family moved to Coney Island and bought their first home. Since then, Frontus has been living in the neighborhood on and off for 35 years (she left for Boston to attend Harvard and then to Manhattan for a degree from Columbia University).
Since the time she was a little girl, Frontus has been giving back to her community – it runs in the family, she says. Her siblings and she served in the local soup kitchen. Her grandparents in Haiti would have people lined up outside their home asking for their help, and they’d help every time. Frontus is no different.
“When people are having a difficult time, they remember. They always remember. You always remember the people who made a call. People who rang your doorbell,” Frontus told Bklyner. “I wanted to be there for people in that way. I didn’t want to just think about myself and my needs. I wanted people to know that someone is thinking about you; that it’s not every man and woman for themselves.”
So through the height of the pandemic, Frontus, her 16 volunteers (which include the non-profit the Guardian Angels), and one staff member, personally delivered food, personal protective equipment (PPE), and hand sanitizers to seniors, people with disabilities, and to anyone else who needed them.
The streets were a “ghost town,” Frontus described. No one was out there and they were going door to door praying for the best. One day, in particular, Frontus and her staff member drove in her car across the district for four hours straight going to people’s doors, leaving things in their mailboxes, and slipping stuff under their gate.
“We were just trying to do the best we could,” Frontus said.
Her COVID Response Initiative, where they delivered hot meals door to door, just recently ended. The meals were being donated by Don Lee, the chairman at Homecrest Community Services whom she met during discussions of anti-Chinese bias incidents in the community right “before we know how bad the pandemic was going to get,” Frontus said. He wanted to help.
Now, Frontus and her staff have been enrolling 100’s of senior citizens around the district to get meals from the City, and helping signed them up to receive fresh produce. And every single day, her office is handing something out, whether it be hand sanitizers or grocery. People need help, she said.
“I just want to make sure people have what they need because that comes first before anything,” she said. “COVID is so very traumatizing. We were losing our friends and neighbors like flies. We have not fully recovered. It was a plague that was descended on us and was taking our loved ones away. People are hungry right now. People are scared.”
Frontus described NYC as the Tale of Two Cities. And she’s not the first to say that. It was what Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would fight to bridge years ago when he was running for office. According to Frontus, coronavirus aside, people are struggling to get by even on a good day.
“I don’t think people really understand. People are losing their jobs. People are scared. Imagine if you have a small family right now and you and your spouse both lose your job. How do you think that feels? What do you think people are going through right now? Millions of Americans are losing their jobs. There is a lot of fear.”
Frontus and her office have helped over 350 people sign up for their unemployment insurance in just two weeks. And every day, they help more and more.
“People just want stability. They want food to eat and they need help getting cash assistance,” she said. “They want to get their stimulus checks. Nobody wants to be in full panic mode.”
When asked if the government (whether it’s state, city, or federal) is doing enough, she said no.
“I don’t think that we ever do enough. We can always do more. We can do more because people want more,” she said. “People are in need now. When people are in need, they need you and they need you fully. They don’t need half of you. They don’t need 25% of you. People want full-fledged support and full-fledged help.”
When she’s not outside giving back, she’s sitting in her armchair thinking. She thinks about life, the universe, and where we all fit in the universe. She is a student of history, she said, so the first thing she did when she heard about the pandemic, was pick up a book to read and figure out what was happening. The world has had pandemics before, she said. And she just wanted to be prepared.
There’s a saying in French that translates to “Man plans, but God decides.” That phrase has stood out to her a lot during these times.
“Everyone is running around and making all these plans. I would’ve loved to be traveling in the African continent, taking a little break,” she chuckled. “And just like that our lives are changed. That has to affect you as a person. Seeing all the death every day, whether we realize it or not, that’s a form of trauma.”
What gives her hope is that the world keeps going.
“Hope comes from the human spirit which never gives up. Everything the world has seen… all of the horrible wars, famine, fights, oppression, slavery, all the things we’ve done that were horrible, the world keeps spinning,” she said. “And yes we lost a lot of people, but we are the people here now. We have to keep serving our fellow neighbors. We can’t give up.”
If you’d like to volunteer, reach out to Frontus at email@example.com.
All the photos were taken by Rathkopf Photography. We profiled them and their incredible work here. You can view more of their photos capturing Frontus and her volunteers in action on their website.