Annual Report 2021: Feature Story - The New York Community Trust
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Good Medicine:

Improving New York’s Healthcare

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On May 31, 1889, 16-year-old Victor Heiser clung to the roof of his family’s stable as he watched a wall of water from a burst dam sweep away his home and parents during the Johnstown Flood. At that moment, Heiser would never have thought he would go on to save tens of thousands of lives around the world. Nor could he have imagined that when he died at age 100 in his adopted hometown of New York City, he would continue to help many more people for decades after his death.

The orphaned teen became a renowned doctor and public health official. He promoted practices around the world that staved off deadly diseases, preventing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Because much of his life’s work involved treating leprosy, he asked The New York Community Trust in 1971 to create a legacy fund to help control and prevent the disease, stating, “lepers have so few friends.” Grants from the fund allowed researchers to map the genome for leprosy in the 2000s and, most recently, to study potential new treatments for the first time in close to 50 years.

Since The Trust was created in 1924, our donors have sought to relieve others’ pain and difficulties, and healthcare has always been a prominent conduit for their altruism. Over the decades, Trust staff have enabled thousands of donors to turn their desire to help into philanthropic strategies that support effective nonprofits and those in need.

Empowered by visionary donors like Dr. Heiser, The New York Community Trust and its divisions on Long Island and in Westchester have improved the quality of healthcare and expanded its accessibility.

Tomasz Rusielewicz works at an automated robotic system for growing stem cells at the Foundation’s headquarters in Chelsea.
BIODIVERSITY: With our funding, the New York Stem Cell Foundation created a multiethnic bank of stem cells. Here, Tomasz Rusielewicz helps grow stem cells at the Foundation’s headquarters in Chelsea. Photo by Ari Mintz

LESSONS FROM LIFE

A Soudavar Fellow from Ecuador, Dr. Russo, at left, with a colleague, Dr. Chi standing side-by-side.

INTERNATIONAL MEDICINE: A Soudavar Fellow from Ecuador, Dr. Russo, at left, and a colleague, Dr. Chi, take a break from their work at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

From the beginning, many donors have worked with The Trust to carry on their philanthropic vision after death—and that impulse often grew out of their own life experiences. Prior to his death in 1927, Walter James—a doctor, professor of medicine, and former president of the New York Academy of Medicine—set up a charitable legacy with The Trust. A man of curiosity and science, he directed The Trust to provide annual funding to the biological research facility in Long Island now called the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Continuing that support decades later, the Erwin P. and Pearl F. Staller Charitable Fund through the Long Island Community Foundation regularly donated to Cold Spring because of Mrs. Staller’s interest in advancing research in women’s health. In addition, The Trust provided grants to the laboratory for drug research to fight breast cancer, and—through the Heiser Fund—to treat leprosy.

Some Trust donors have used tragedies in their own lives as an inflection point to help others. In 1982, after 35-year-old Mammadi Soudavar died of cancer and his brother, Ali Reza, died in an accident shortly thereafter, their parents worked with The Trust to create funds in their memory. These funds provide fellowships for international doctors at major cancer centers such as Memorial Sloan Kettering that let them take new treatments back to their home countries. The program has brought dozens of physicians to the U.S. from countries including Peru, India, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines.

A woman in a pink sweater holding her cat.

PATIENTS AND PETS: A permanent fund in The Trust allowed CancerCare to create a wide-ranging support program for Bianca Ilich during her illness, including financial aid to care for her cat, Misho.

While Orland Greene was struggling with advanced cancer in 1961, he stipulated in his will that The Trust create a fund to alleviate the financial struggles of low-income cancer patients. Using dollars from the Orland S. and Frances S. Greene Fund, The Trust supported CancerCare to create a program that aims to relieve cancer patients of expenses not covered by insurance, such as transportation, meals, and childcare.

The Greenes could scarcely have imagined the comfort their fund would bring almost 50 years later to the Bulgarian-born actress Bianca Ilich, who at the age of 34 learned she had breast cancer.

Ilich, who subsequently lost her job during the pandemic, received financial assistance through CancerCare and benefited from its pet support program, which provided food for Misho, the cat she adopted on the same day she received her diagnosis.

After losing her hair during chemotherapy, Ilich went to CancerCare’s wig clinic. Receiving the wig and being pampered by the staff, she said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me believe that I’m still a beautiful person, and that I have to fight for my life and my happiness.”

Speaking of the CancerCare services that the Greene Fund made possible, Ilich said, “I couldn’t be more grateful.”

AMPLIFYING LEGACIES

As The Trust received permanent legacy funds over the decades, its grantmaking expanded, and it increasingly relied on professional staff to survey the latest developments, evaluate proposals from nonprofits to address specific local challenges, and make grant recommendations that link yesterday’s generosity to today’s solutions.

Carrying forward the philanthropic legacy of caring New Yorkers, The Trust’s health grantmaking has several priorities: supporting critical medical research; leading the way for improving New York’s healthcare system; and increasing access and affordability, particularly for low-income residents, under-served communities, and people of color.

BREAKTHROUGH RESEARCH

Medical researchers see wide-ranging promise in the use of human stem cells because they can be developed into many kinds of cells. Though stem cells today can be derived from skin and blood samples, earlier research using human embryonic stem cells was threatened by politics in the early 2000s. To enable the research to continue, The Trust helped establish the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute. Since the Institute opened in 2005, it has advanced the treatment of a variety of diseases, including those of the brain, eyes, heart, and lungs.

More recently, with The Trust’s help, the Institute began creating an ethnically diverse stem cell biobank. The project is aimed at righting the inequities within medical research, which primarily uses white, European genetic material. Because it will allow researchers to consider genetic differences among ethnic groups, the biobank is an important step forward in developing more targeted treatments for communities of color.

“Our goal since inception has been to represent, through stem cells, the rich genetic and ethnic diversity of our human population in biomedical research,” said Susan L. Solomon, founder and CEO of the Institute, “and move beyond the ’one-size-fits-all’ model of developing treatments and cures for patients. The Trust has helped us continue increasing the diversity of our biobank of cells as a resource for the entire biomedical community, to ensure that the discoveries we make will be representative of patients everywhere. Together, we can deliver on the promise of precision medicine for everyone.”

A Soudavar Fellow from Ecuador, Dr. Russo, at left, with a colleague, Dr. Chi.

PHARMACY TRAINING: Kyana Martinez took a pharmacy tech class at Lehman College while in high school, part of the New York Alliance for Careers in Healthcare partnership, which was started by The Trust.

"The Trust has helped us continue increasing the diversity of our biobank of cells as a resource for the entire biomedical community."
—Susan L. Solomon, founder and CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation

A mother holding her newborn.
BETTER CARE FOR NEW MOMS: Malaysia Anderson gave birth with the help of a doula and support from a program to improve maternal health at NYC Health+Hospitals. A grant to the Fund for Public Health supported these efforts. Photo by Monique Chappel for the By My Side program of the City Department of Health and Mental Health.

IMPROVING THE SYSTEM

A portion of The Trust’s grantmaking targets improvements to the overall healthcare system. Following the passage of the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, The Trust was instrumental in establishing the New York Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, a public-private workforce development partnership housed at the Workforce Development Corporation. The Alliance works to match training resources with the rapidly changing healthcare sector needs. This provides New Yorkers with well-paying jobs and helps the industry find the qualified staff it needs.

INCREASING ACCESS

The affordability of healthcare is one of The Trust’s preeminent concerns: all the medical breakthroughs in the world are meaningless if New Yorkers don’t have access to them.

The Trust helped the United Hospital Fund of New York conduct research and advocacy to make health coverage in New York State more affordable and accessible to residents. The nonprofit is studying various ways to expand government subsidies and lower costs for families with employer-sponsored plans. Recognizing that immigrant New Yorkers—especially those who are undocumented—face challenges, Trust grants to the New York Immigration Coalition and Charles B. Wang Community Health Center improved immigrants’ access to culturally competent, affordable healthcare.

In the last 15 years, New York State began to transform Medicaid—the government program that provides care to low-income residents. Those changes have included the adoption of managed care. To ensure the new system fulfills its potential, The Trust supported Medicaid Matters New York, a coalition of consumer advocates and community-based health groups. This alliance gave consumers a strong voice, which led the state to make it easier for more enrollees to enter and navigate the new managed-care system.

Making healthcare accessible to low-income residents is a priority at The Trust’s suburban divisions as well. The Westchester Community Foundation supported the creation of one of the state’s first school-based health clinics—the Open Door Family Medical Center in Port Chester—in 2004 to get services to low-income students there. The program provided medications and preventative care directly to students at their school.

To make care easily accessible to children in its area, our Long Island Community Foundation made a grant in 2012 to the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine to mobilize a van for dental services to nearly 5,000 uninsured students at elementary schools in Riverhead and Brookhaven. To prevent escalating health issues or a trip to the emergency room, the van provided cleanings, screenings, and dental-care demonstrations.

The Trust has long supported improvements in maternity care and early childhood health. In the late 1980s, The Trust gave a grant to the Maternity Center Association for birth centers in low-income neighborhoods, and to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York’s “Campaign for Healthy Children,” which pushed Medicaid to expand coverage for 120,000 pregnant women and for children’s primary healthcare. In 2019, The Trust funded a program of the Fund for Public Health in New York to improve the disproportionate maternal morbidity rates of women of color by training medical personnel and informing women of their rights in healthcare settings. 

Nurse helping a senior with a medicine bottle.

PROMOTING PREVENTION

Because the old proverb “prevention is better than cure” was never more true than in today’s complicated and costly world of healthcare, The Trust supports promising nonmedical initiatives that take a holistic view of health. Promoting wellness through healthy eating and exercise are just a few of the ways we’ve sought to avert the onset of serious illnesses.

In central Brooklyn, the Human Services Council brought together community-based organizations and local hospitals to find ways to provide better preventive care to residents and avoid the need for emergency treatments and hospital admissions down the road. Because the community-based organizations are trusted by residents, they can help spread the word about and provide access to more services, such as pre- and post-natal care for women or counseling for isolated older adults. 

In the South Bronx, The Trust initiated a five-year program to foster healthy and livable neighborhoods in areas with some of the worst health statistics in the state. Three nonprofits—BronxWorks, Claremont Community Centers, and Urban Health Plan—used the grants to increase the availability of healthy foods and opportunities for exercise with the goal of reducing obesity, which contributes to higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic problems.

TODAY AND TOMORROW

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a wide range of new challenges to the healthcare system. The Trust responded quickly to address New Yorkers’ acute needs, and followed through as the city took steps toward recovery.

On March 20, 2020, the day that New York State went “on pause” and declared an emergency due to the COVID-19 virus, The Trust and other philanthropic partners announced the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund. By July, the collaborative fund had raised $73 million and distributed more than 750 grants, many of which went to healthcare nonprofits to smooth the transition to online telemedicine services or obtain protective gear for staff and clients.

As infection rates dropped, The Trust continued to make grants to improve the region’s healthcare system, particularly to address the emotional wellbeing of New Yorkers. The Trust ensured nonprofits could meet emerging needs, such as the Service Program for Older People helping clients cope with the isolation and trauma resulting fromTwo men and two ladies walking in black and white. the pandemic and the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York providing mental healthcare to its frontline workers. Other grants in 2021 went to counter misinformation and hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccines and to help New Yorkers get access to shots. Public Good Projects, for example, continues to monitor vaccine misinformation and advance scientifically based messages to hesitant communities. 

A COMMITMENT TO HEALTH

Since The Trust’s creation in 1924, the fields of health and medicine have made tremendous strides in understanding the human body, how to maintain it, and how to repair it when it breaks down. In that time, the healthcare delivery system has undergone enormous transformations as well, becoming more complex and costly.

The Trust is proud of its role in advancing science, promoting wellness, and improving access to affordable care. With the ongoing support of our generous donors, The Trust will continue to fund innovation and improvements to the healthcare system, making sure that New Yorkers receive reliable and cost-effective care.