“I’ve been here for 37 years,” Donna Henes says about her Prospect Heights apartment, “and one by one, every single thing is falling apart.”
Henes (rather, Mama Donna Henes) is an urban shaman who you may have seen cleansing Renee Graziano’s house on an episode of VH1’s Mob Wives or at one of her solstice or equinox events at Grand Army Plaza. She’s also a new member of Umbrella, a service that seeks to help seniors with everyday tasks using members of their own communities — and they’ve just started serving parts of Brooklyn.
In a nutshell, what Umbrella does is connect seniors who need things done with “Handy Neighbors” who are looking to use their skills to help out and make a little extra cash in the process. Handy Neighbors are often retirees but can really be anyone from the local community. They are extensively vetted by Umbrella and can work as much or as little as they like.
We visited Henes at her home to chat about Umbrella and the neighbors they’ve connected her with.
As you might expect from an urban shaman, Henes’ home is teeming with books, herbs, and cultural artifacts that she uses in her work. It’s a unique, open, airy apartment with multiple skylights – but it’s also full of small household and professional projects she’s been putting off for a while.
And while she doesn’t see herself as elderly by any stretch, she’s in her 70s and recognizes that there are things she just can’t do on her own.
“I’m getting shorter,” she exclaims. “I lost two inches!”
That means there are things she can’t reach anymore. Plus, “I’m not a ladder person and never have been a ladder person.”
She spoke about how much she appreciates the way a service like Umbrella can help people stay independent as they age.
Henes has been a Brooklyn resident since the early 70s and wants to keep it that way. But living here has become extremely expensive, and, while things often calm down for people as they age, the opposite has been true for her.
“It’s gotten very hard to stay. I work 37 hours a day,” she jokes. And she’s serious. When I arrived for our meeting, she was deep in conversation with her agent about filling up every moment of free time she had with promotional opportunities for her latest book, Bless This House, which comes out in April.
Being “busier, shorter, and weaker,” Henes knew that all those neglected projects were not getting done anytime soon and were bound to catch up with her. She feels like she found Umbrella at just the right time.
And they’ve connected her with some great people. One Handy Neighbor, Mark, has been back to help her more than four times in one week. “He’s really nice and told me he was interested in writing. So I gave him a few of my books.” They even took a ride to Home Depot together to pick up a new medicine cabinet.
“We had a few hours to just chat. And while we were there, he ran into a friend of his and they started speaking Spanish.” Henes describes how Mexico is her spiritual home and she’d been basically all over the country but hadn’t been back in a while. “I’m always looking for a way to practice Spanish, so the next time he emailed me, I responded in Spanish.”
She loves that they all live in the neighborhood. “I haven’t bumped into any of them yet, but I probably will soon.” That kind of community building is something Umbrella prides itself on.
So far, the projects Mark and other Handy Neighbors, like Zack and Sam, have worked on have been mostly household fixes. They’ve repaired a fan, installed a threshold on a door, cleared items off of kitchen shelves to prepare for painting, and things like that:
Whatever she needs, Henes knows where she’ll turn.
“The people from Umbrella are wonderful. I haven’t had any – not even slightly – negative experience. So I am thrilled.”
To learn more about Umbrella, visit askumbrella.com or call (718) 260 – 6719.