8 Westchester heroes who battled the coronavirus

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City & State celebrates the people who've helped Westchester through COVID-19.

8 Westchester heroes who battled the coronavirus

The Hudson Valley got hit first. These community leaders stepped up.

Lauren Bassin

Assistant Executive Director of Community Programs, Westchester Jewish Community Services

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Lauren Bassin knows that completely shutting down isn’t an option for her and her staff, pandemic or not.

“We never shut down. We can’t, we are always open. We’re a 24-hour program, seven days a week,” says Bassin, the assistant executive director of community programs at Westchester Jewish Community Services. “So our staff had to keep coming in when most of the world or most of New York were staying home.”

Bassin, who works with adults 21 and older who are developmentally disabled to help them live independently and learn the necessary skills to do so, decided to host Zoom meetings for her staff to give them virtual support when New Yorkers started testing positive in March. Precautions were put in place to limit the spread within the organization’s residential facilities. For Bassin, one of the key components of the new protocols had to be that families still felt connected to their loved ones.

“We wanted to make sure they still had contact, so we had these socially distant outdoor visits, but we also had Zoom so families could keep seeing them for those that are really far away,” Bassin says.

Not only has the pandemic been a major health challenge for communities across New York, but unemployment levels have risen dramatically as businesses have had to lay off employees in the midst of restrictions on activity. 

“The classes we do to increase their skills and capabilities in the areas you need to work, those have continued, and we didn’t miss a beat with those,” Bassin says. 

Bassin says that a safe transition to operating in the middle of a pandemic would not have been possible without the dedication of her staff. “As much as they were concerned for themselves and their family members, they were really also so appreciative of everything that was being done for everybody,” she says. “I think that really showed during this really difficult time.”

Anita Kopacz 

Creator, Zero F’s Given

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At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the massive increase in unemployment across the country caught Anita Kopacz’s attention. Wanting to help those who had lost their jobs in the Westchester community, Kopacz distributed $100 to $200 grocery store gift cards through her Zero F’s Given campaign. The initiative was accompanied by a six-week virtual program called Zero F’s Given Restart to teach healthy eating and lead guided meditations to those living in the Westchester community.

Zero F’s Given was created by Kopacz in November of 2019 to help disenfranchised populations heal from familial and sexual trauma and to raise money for the Center for Safety and Change, an organization in Rockland County that offers programs and services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. To raise awareness of the campaign, Zero F’s Given has focused on selling t-shirts, with 80% of the profits going toward funding the Center for Safety and Change.

With the implementation of a stay-at-home order in March and the pandemic’s persistence throughout the country, Kopacz says that the work done by the Center for Safety and Change, where she serves as a board member, has only become more critical. 

“It just was really intense during that time. It still is pretty intense,” says Kopacz, adding that the number of people reaching out to the Center for Safety and Change increased by 60% to 70% during the pandemic.

“We were having a lot of calls where the women were not able to even really talk about what was happening because everyone was inside with them all the time,” Kopacz says. “They were literally locked down with the people that were abusing them.” 

With her background as a psychologist and as a survivor of sexual trauma herself, Kopacz has led online workshops throughout the pandemic that focus on helping people heal. “The most touching part is hearing people’s feedback on how they’ve healed from their sexual trauma,” says Kopacz. “For some people home is a safe place, but for others it’s the most dangerous.”

Barry McGoey 

President, International Association of Firefighters Yonkers Local 628

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Barry McGoey’s decade of experience leading Yonkers Firefighters Local 628 helped Westchester County’s largest fire department successfully navigate an unparalleled public health crisis. The early onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic was fierce in Westchester, with Yonkers following New Rochelle as a hot spot – and personal protective equipment reserves were depleted within weeks.

As usual, McGoey leapt into action. He connected with the county executive and state senators who helped replenish the PPE supply. With a high PPE burn rate, McGoey lobbied beyond local levels to get the help that firefighters and other emergency and essential workers desperately needed. McGoey, who pushed for COVID-19 guidelines for firefighters, also limited the movement of firefighters from one firehouse to another, prohibited firefighters from leaving the station to shop for meals, and banned the sharing of utensils and cooking between firefighters in order to restrict transmission of the virus. His requirements became a model for other fire stations across the state. 

In exchange for restricting firefighters’ meal shopping and cooking, the union reimbursed members for the cost of meals that were purchased from local eating establishments to assist struggling small businesses, absorbing $150,000 in costs over a three-month period. Additionally, McGoey was able to secure an $11.5 million grant to support the hiring of 30 firefighters to be paid by the federal government to reduce overtime costs. Prior to the pandemic, McGoey’s union and local elected officials often battled over legislation and labor contracts, but now McGoey sees a bright future. 

“We’ve had no choice but to put aside our labor and management hats and our Democrat and Republican hats and try to work together for the benefit of our members, our citizens, our taxpayers, so hopefully that will continue,” McGoey says. “The good and the improved relationships will result in better working relationships as we move forward because we’re not out of the woods yet, and there’s a lot to be done, especially economically, moving forward. We’re going to have to work hand in hand to get through it together successfully.”

Melanie Melendez 

Direct Support Professional, Cardinal McCloskey Community Services

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As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Melanie Melendez has not stopped making sure that her patients are getting the care they need. On a daily basis, she has carried out her in-person responsibilities as a direct support professional, a role in which she cares for six women with developmental disabilities who live in a group home run by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services. 

“Our agency has helped us create an environment for them to make sure that they’re safe and make sure that they live a normal life,” Melendez says.

Early on, when Westchester County was struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak, Melendez says that Cardinal McCloskey Community Services ensured that everyone was wearing masks, employees and residents had their temperature checked at least twice a day, and the facility itself was disinfected three times a day. If a resident became sick, Melendez put on the appropriate PPE and never stopped striving to ensure that her patients were given their medication and food, and were also comfortable and happy. 

“We try to put a smile on their face and try to make them feel happy and not feel sick and sad,” Melendez says. “It kind of breaks our hearts, but we also want to make sure that they don’t get anybody else sick.”

On a typical day, Melendez works with the six women living in the group home to review their food, socialization and community goals, and to help with their daily exercises and to take them to their appointments. A few activities organized by the home include dance class on Mondays, music on Tuesdays, and zumba or hip hop on Wednesdays. 

“Throughout the days we make sure that they’re actually active, so they don’t have to think so much of wanting to go home or think so much about the COVID-19,” says Melendez. 

In addition to working full time at Cardinal McCloskey Community Services, Melendez is also going to school to study business management. In the future, Melendez says she hopes to open her own agency to care for people with developmental disabilities, specifically focusing on providing care for individuals with Down syndrome.

Linda Mosiello 

Administrator, Sunshine Children’s Home and Rehab Center

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Linda Mosiello has been with the Sunshine Children’s Home since 2001, when it was known as St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center for Children. Now a 54-bed facility, it works with critically ill or injured children while providing a loving and home-like environment. As the administrator, Mosiello manages the facility to make sure day-to-day operations run smoothly – which has been a major challenge lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Like everybody else, very early on, I would say probably earlier than most, we started to look at COVID-19 before any mandates were really issued out and that’s because of the vulnerability of the children we take care of,” Mosiello says. “They are just very, very fragile. I’m very proud of the team because we really did anticipate well ahead. We had already instituted trying to look at our PPE supplies before that. We soon learned that our distributors who would normally distribute normal amounts all of a sudden started changing.”

With the support of community health care organizations, Mosiello found the PPE she desperately needed. Since the start of the pandemic, Mosiello has also worked on a self-sufficiency model and a comprehensive plan to ensure Sunshine is capable of effectively dealing with the virus. Sunshine requires everyone that comes into the building to go through mandatory screening and monitoring. All staff members are tested weekly and there are continuous conversations to ensure people are mindful of their own exposures at home.

 “We’ve really kept all the requirements to keep a 90-day back up supply,” says Mosiello, who anticipates a resurgent virus. “We’re ready in the event that things start to change.”

Mosiello says that in her experience, the threat is unprecedented. “I’m an old-timer, die-hard nurse, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “I think the closest thing that I recall in my career was certainly in the ’80s when HIV was in the hospitals and it was unknown and the fears. It is somewhat reminiscent, but at such a higher scope, and I am so unbelievably proud of the team here at Sunshine.”

Paula Nocca

Site Coordinator, Sterling Community Center, The Mental Health Association of Westchester

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the staff at Sterling Community Center, which offers food and support services for individuals with behavioral health conditions, wondered how they would be able to provide enough food for members of their community. Thanks to the efforts of site coordinator Paula Nocca and her team, they expanded access with a no-contact food delivery service to the mental health community in Westchester. From the end of March to September, Nocca’s team made a total of 1,020 deliveries.

“To me, my staff who came in and (who) were working from the very beginning and during the height of the COVID virus, they are the heroes to me, not necessarily me,” Nocca says. 

The White Plains-based center secured a $125,000 grant recently for food delivery service. Previously, Nocca had to dig through over 300 pounds of vegetables to pick out the rotten portions. Now, Nocca is able to get canned goods from the food bank along with a variety of food options from a distributor including fresh produce, dairy products, proteins and beverages – while also delivering diapers, baby formula, toilet paper and other necessities. 

Nocca also prioritized maintaining the sense of community through video calls with members and outreach through the food program. Nocca personally made a large share of the deliveries and has pushed to make sure those who may suffer from mental health conditions that are exacerbated due to the pandemic have the resources they need. 

Nocca moved to Westchester after a 33-year career in Florida and found a home at MHA Westchester to start her second career. “I went from being an intern, to a recovery specialist to a site coordinator,” Nocca says. “It’s been a really enjoyable experience, the last six and a half years.”

Maria Trusa

CEO, Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care

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Maria Trusa, left, with her business partner Gina Cappelli
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In mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Westchester County, Maria Trusa understood that to take care of the Latino community and the undocumented population, Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care needed to adapt. 

As supplies of personal protective equipment ran dry and daily calls skyrocketed, Trusa says her staff began conducting virtual visits. To keep up with the influx of patients, she hired a call center in Mexico and more nurse practitioners. She continued going into the office throughout the crisis to help guide patients in person, and quickly recognized the need for more testing, especially throughout the Latino community and the county’s undocumented population.

“A few weeks into the pandemic I just couldn’t take it anymore, so my business partner and I decided that we were going to open up our own center to test them and to treat them,” Trusa says. She set up a tent outside of her medical center, teamed up with Quest Diagnostics, searched for PPE, and started treating and testing as many people as possible. 

Since April, Trusa says that Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care has tested at least 8,000 people and continues to test people every day. During Westchester’s coronavirus peak, Trusa says that of the patients being tested, 50% were testing positive. 

“It was insane. We were seeing sick people. We didn’t turn people away,” says Trusa. “We were there for them when they needed us the most.” 

Trusa’s business partner Gina Cappelli founded Formé Medical Center and Urgent Care in 2015, and in the last five years the center has gone from serving 1,500 to 25,000 patients, 7,000 of whom are uninsured. “We’ve become a center for the community that needs us the most in this area,” says Trusa who is from the Dominican Republic, referring to her majority Latino and undocumented patients.

In the future, Trusa says her goal is to nationally expand the concept of the center’s unique medical membership program. Outside of her work at the medical center, Trusa serves on the Westchester County Hispanic Advisory Board.

Catherine White

Executive Director, New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce

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When Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially declared New Rochelle a containment zone in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce immediately became a hub of information not only for businesses, but for the entire community. With the rest of the office staff furloughed, Catherine White suddenly found herself alone in the office with phone calls coming in from morning to evening.

“As soon as really March 10, as soon as they used the word containment zone, National Guard and New Rochelle in the same sentence, business effectively stopped here,” says White, who has lived in the city for three decades.

While disseminating as much information as possible to business owners and the community through regular email updates, White also worked with a Westchester County reopening task force to provide resources for New Rochelle and areas surrounding the city. In addition to offering small business grants, the Chamber of Commerce provided aid by sending boxes of personal protective equipment to local small businesses as the need became more dire.

“The thing to remember is, even if a business is open, the new guidelines require additional expenses for a business to be up to code to work with everything,” says White, whose family owns a brokerage firm on Long Island.

White, who has a wealth of local connections thanks to her extensive volunteer work, says the generosity of the community is one of the main reasons New Rochelle is recovering slowly but surely from the outbreak. 

“I've been privileged to be part of that as well where people call me up and say, ‘How can I get involved?’ And I've been able to point them in the right direction,” she says.

White was able to speak to residents with ideas and help them to get involved in pandemic relief plans. This included a resident who made over 300 masks that were delivered to essential workers.

“We all rise working together,” she says. “Either our city saves itself, or our city falls apart.”

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Kimberly Gonzalez
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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Madeline Lyskawa
is a former City & State editorial intern.
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Destine Manson
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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