In a small office, five desks sit comfortably as a steady stream of people trickle in and out. Sitting at one desk is Rrustem Celaj, Community Counselor, who is speaking in Albanian on the phone. To the right of him is Director Joseph Marano, also speaking on the phone but in Italian. Mr. Celaj apologizes several times in-between taking phone calls and talking to clients that have walked in, “That was a client who was afraid of losing their food stamps but they just called in to say that they have received an increase for this year.” he explains.
The Council of Belmont Organization, Inc. (C.O.B.O.) has called Belmont (otherwise known as Bronx’s Little Italy) home since the 1970s. They are a city-wide community based agency dealing with social services such as: social security, SSI, housing assistance, Section 8, medicaid, and medicare. Essentially, the employees at C.O.B.O. act as a liaison between client and agencies. Like many organizations that focus on social services, they work with clients by giving them advice, telling them which agencies to go too, and helping them fill out needed forms. People walk through their doors looking for help whether it’s a senior obtaining retirement benefits or an incoming Fordham University student who needs to find housing.
Organizations that handle social services are a necessary part of communities but few have the same connection and trust that comes from being a long-time neighborhood resident. “Sometimes we have seniors who will only listen to the advice that we give even if their own children told the the same thing.” Mr. Celaj explained with a chuckle. This is not surprising considering the fact that all the staff at C.O.B.O. have been working here for over 30 years. Seniors without access to a computer or the help of family members are left vulnerable when in need of services, and this is where the familiarity with local seniors is most important. Along with seniors who trust their advice, many of their clients are from various immigrant communities.
The Bronx plays an important part in being a principal entry point for immigration to the United States. In the Bronx alone, 55.98 percent of residents speak a language other than English. For those who lack proficiency in the English language, something as simple as finding out the proper forms to fill out for services can become an arduous task. While C.O.B.O. has a small staff of three workers, they are able to help people who speak Italian, Albanian, Spanish, and Yugoslavian. This has been especially helpful to the growing Eastern European population in Belmont, Pelham Parkway, and the Mosholu Parkway areas. “Sometimes something as simple as a phone call for advice might not seem like a lot, but for someone of real need it is gigantic.”
To understand the diversity and dedication of C.O.B.O., Sergeant Gonzalo Duran reminisces on how he walked through their office five years ago after he left the military. Going through a difficult transition into the civilian world and already facing homelessness, finding an apartment was not any easier. Elisa Majorino, Secretary for C.O.B.O.,personally walked Sergeant Duran to meet with local building owners until an apartment was found. “That’s something that no other organization would do but they did, simply because I needed help” he said.
Years ago, C.O.B.O. had a staff of ten people but with cuts in city funding they are now down to three. Social service agencies that are considered not-for-profit generally receive discretionary funding from the New York City Council. A Council Member will reserve funds to organizations within their council district so that these organizations will continue providing services to the community. However, Council Member Ritchie Torres is the only elected official to give funding to C.O.B.O., a city-wide agency that serves clients throughout many neighborhoods in New York City. “The greatest thing that can be done for us is to advocate the fact that we are a community organization that needs help to continue giving help.” said Mr. Marano when explaining how community members can help C.O.B.O.
But Mr. Marano is firm in his convictions, “Even if we don’t have money to keep the lights on, we’ll still be here.”
The Council of Belmont Organization, Inc. (C.O.B.O.) is located at 630 East 187th Street in the Bronx and can be reached by calling (718) 364-4788. In order to write to your City Council Members and inform them of the issues you care about, find the names of your district’s council members here.