By Mónica Romero-Amador
CROWN HEIGHTS — Good people and good food. That’s what a passerby will find on the third Saturday of each month in front of the Bedford-Atlantic Armory Men’s Shelter on Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, where Mirlande Noel and her family, along with some volunteers, set up tables to feed the homeless, provide clothes and offer some solace.
“You know, we don’t just give them food and clothes,” Noel, who is Catholic, said. “We feed their souls; they open their hearts, and we listen to them. They are our brothers and sisters.”
For Noel, the charity goes back a generation. When she was growing up in Haiti, she helped her mom do the same thing. “I grew up helping my mom feed the less fortunate people in Haiti,” Noel said. “We used to cook the food in front of the Catholic churches, and we fed them right there.”
Noel’s mother moved to New York when Noel was still young in order to work and provide a better life for her two children, Mirlande and Monclas. A couple of years later, Mirlande got her green card. She visited her mom in the U.S. during her summer vacations and went to school in Haiti the rest of the year.
In 1999, Mirlande decided to stay in the United States. She moved to Long Island, where she still lives. During her first months living in the U.S., she felt a call to help the most vulnerable, a lesson her mother had instilled in her, but she didn’t find her specific mission until the following year.
“Once I was just passing by Bedford Avenue, between Pacific and Atlantic streets in Brooklyn, and I saw a shelter,” Noel recalled. “I realized that was my chance to help my brothers and sisters, so I talked to the police officers on duty and asked if I could bring food any time.”
Ever since then, Mirlande has had a routine: She stays up late at night to cook plenty of food before she heads to her spot outside the Bedford-Atlantic Armory Men’s Shelter the next day to feed the homeless.
“She is a brave woman,” Monclas Noel, Mirlande’s younger brother, said. “At the very beginning, she used to do it all by herself. She would cook alone, she would bring the food, the tables, and would stand right on that corner to wait for the people to come out and eat.”
For many years, Mirlande didn’t have a specific day to meet her “brothers and sisters,” as she calls the people she feeds; she did it when she felt like doing it. But that changed when Monclas decided to join her in 2016.
He proposed establishing a set day of support and making that public on social media so that more people could help financially and volunteer. His idea gained traction, and Mirlande’s family, friends and neighbors agreed to gather on the third Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. to serve the homeless.
They are meeting a growing need. According to a report from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, a nonprofit research organization, almost 12,700 families with 10,750 children under the age of five lived in shelters in New York City at the end of 2018, a 55 percent increase from 2011.
On Sept. 21, Mirlande and her family drove once again from Long Island to Crown Heights to meet outside the shelter. After setting up the tables, they raised a prayer to heaven, asking for the most important presence: God.
The participants expressed joy and gratitude. Most of them have known Mirlande and her family for years and kept saying “thanks and blessings.”
Some stayed until the end to share some words of hope and to take the extra food for later. Next to Mirlande were her two children, Serge Nicolas, 18, and John Aiden, eight. Mirlande is raising them the way she was raised by her mom.
“The Lord has done so many miracles in my life that I can’t even tell, so for me, this is a way of feeling grateful and giving back to God through his children,” Mirlande said.
Her charity goes beyond Crown Heights. Mirlande is also building a shelter in Haiti to help homeless people there. She said the building is almost complete; it just needs the floors to be put in before the shelter opens. She’s been saving money for years to pay for it.
Mirlande’s mother passed away last Nvember, leaving Mirlande a legacy that will accompany her forever — faith and charity. Mirlande’s mom taught an ordinary person to do extraordinary things.
Mónica Romero-Amador is an intern at DeSales Media Group.