Dayelin De la Cruz (17), Imagine Society activist, interviewed Fight Against Hunger activist Doreen Wohl (88) in July, 2020

Hi, how are you?

Fine, thank you. How are you?

I'm good.

Good. I know your Church, The Ascension Church.

Ohh, have you been there before?

When I was director of West Side Campaign Against Hunger, I, a number of times came up and spoke at the the service before Thanksgiving and it was fabulous. Fabulous service and the choir all sorts of things were just wonderful.

Yes, it’s beautiful. Are you excited for the interview?


Okay, so can you tell me about how you got into social work in the first place?

Ah, well, I was born in England. So I'm an immigrant here and I was born in 1932. Both my parents were teachers. My mother had taught domestic science, which was cooking and household management. After she had two babies, she didn't work. My father had a two year teacher's diploma. In those days back in England, you didn't go to university for a teaching certificate. He became a teacher and then he became a headmaster at a school. It was called an outdoor school. There was a lot of tuberculosis in England at that time and it was the idea of getting kids out of doors. It was a school that was built with balconies, all the bedrooms and the beds were out on the balconies and they slept outdoors. That was in London and it was the atmosphere that was pretty sweaty. I don't see how it wouldn’t affect you. I mean, fresh air is good. Then he became a headmaster of what was known as a residential school. It was a school for children in need of protection. It was families that were having difficulty in one way or or another, and the children would sometimes come just for a year or two. Sometimes it might have been if a parent was in prison or something like that, where they couldn't be home for most of their life. School leaving age in those days was 14 in England, up until I think after the Second World War in 1945 where school leaving became 16. I think it's more like 17 or 18 now. I was born into a family of teachers and we lived in the residential school on a house. It was set out on 100 acres with different cottages for the boys and different cottages for the girls and a lot of land which in the war was for vegetables, growing things; our house was right there. I grew up in that sort of setting.

Being an immigrant, was it hard for you to migrate from your home, to get involved with the different committees and social work?

I went to boarding school during the war because a lot of low income London children were brought out to the school. It was in an area that the German planes flew over and bombs were occasionally dropped on their way to London. My sister and I went away to boarding school. My religious background is Quaker. So we were now out in the country. We would come home for the month of Christmas, a month at Easter and six weeks in the summer. And there was always the question, could we come home or was it too bad? And if it was too bad, my my mother would come and join us. So I was used to being away from home.

After graduating from high school, I went to London University and studied sociology, because there was not a degree in social work at that time. But I studied economics and sociology. I got a fellowship with the American Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker branch. This branch of the Quakers and my introduction to the United States was working with migratory farmworkers. I immediately was introduced to the fact that America wasn't the land of milk and honey for everybody. I'm sure most tourists come to the United States and never become aware of migratory farm workers at all. Well, I found out about straight away.

What inspired you to continue working in the same field you've been working for, for years. What motivated you to keep going?

In social work?


It is really a deep seated conviction that you work with and for low income people, for the betterment of people. Whether it was challenging racism but suddenly there's also an enormous prejudice against poor whites.

I go to Loyola school and one of our principles are becoming men and women for others. That just ties into that idea. Do you know how many years roughly you've been in social work?

Well basically since 1954 when I came over here, and that's 65 years.


Well, I'm not working now. My last job was the West Side Campaign Against Hunger and I started working there when I was 60. I worked until I was 80. Do you know of it at all?

I know some of it, but if you could explain it more.

It’s an emergency food program known in a way as a food pantry and I did a lot of work for children's summer residential camping. I've worked on the Lower East Side and I've worked up at the Bronx. I directed a family daycare program up in the Bronx for New York Foundling Hospital. Then I decided, okay, I've had enough traveling by subway. I want to find a job in my own neighborhood, I was 60. There was an advertisement from the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, looking for a director. I applied and got hired. I was the first professional person hired to do that job. It was a real mess which was very fortunate for me, because I knew I had to find out who was funding us, when reports were due, and that sort of thing. It took me about six weeks of absolutely going through every file, cleaning the files up, organizing them, and it gave me a chance to observe the program without getting involved and there were lots of things I did not like. People waited in long lines outside on the sidewalk. They were interviewed by a volunteer Social Worker. The computer was facing her and the client was sitting on the other side of the table, and could not see their record. She would then tell them if they were eligible or not. There was a sort of eligibility factor, I didn't like that. Then, they would just give them their food and I didn't like that. So, I got together with the staff. There was a very small staff: a part time receptionist, a part time social worker, and a full time pantry manager. I got together with them on a weekly basis first to ask people to take a look at the program and then ask what do we feel we are doing is good, and what do you feel could be improved. I involved them in the discussion.

Just looking back on that, I didn't involve any other clients in that process at that time. I came in at the end of October or beginning of November and in the spring we were funded in part by the State Department of Health and that was a five year contract. I was very fortunate, sometimes you're just lucky with certain things. The contract was coming to an end and we had to put in what's known as an RFP Request for Proposal to gain the next five year contract and to do that, I had to flesh out how the program would be run. We had some of this discussion with the staff.

There was one day that the pantry was just open from 1:00-3:00pm. The pantry manager, the social work interviewer, the receptionist, and I would be there. One day, the pantry manager had not come in and I was by myself. The pantry is down in the church basement and so I went up the stairs to where there was the line of people outside. I said to them, “I'm by myself today, I'm going to need help.” People were wonderful. They came in, they helped set up, and from that point on, we involved the customers. I wrote this into the proposal, that we ran the pantry as a store, where customers would come in, and select their own food. I had to create a card and it would have to be based on different sized families that told people how much they could select in each of the nutrition categories. Then they went by the check out who checked what they selected.

I went up and down Broadway and asked supermarket stores and grocery stores just to give me a basket, one of their baskets. At that moment we had about 12 shopping baskets that came from the local stores. When you don't have any money you just have to go out and do what you can. I wrote that up in the proposal. I had to work out lots of things in that writing and we got the funding. Actually we got more funding then we previously had and it was the first time that anybody has suggested that the customers should select their own food. That made more sense and eliminated a lot of waste because you can select what you need and what matches up with what to have at home. If you already have lots of rice at home, you don't need it. I enjoyed it enormously and the country up until the recent virus has functioned that way ever since, which is now nearly 30 years.

Most of the pantry staff have been customers themselves. We have a social work unit, where people have degrees in social work and can do counseling and put people in touch to get food stamps. We also did a lot of advocacy so we would go down to City Hall, discussing their budget. I can remember talking to Bill De Blasio. There was a small committee hearing when he was then just just a Councilman.

Aside from the challenges you faced with getting involved in the pantry, did you encounter any other challenges along the way?

Oh, yes. Non violence is a very basic principle principle for Quakers. So I am basically a pacifist. Back in the time of the Vietnam War, almost the beginning of that war, there was a group of us living in Columbus, Ohio and it was a very small group. A lot of good things can happen in small groups, the stimulus is always much smaller. We knew that the majority of people that had gone into the war were coming from low income communities. Both poor whites and and people of color. They were not getting the information about the right to conscientious objection to do ultimate service.

We decided, we would put together a leaflet, which was based on constitutional rights. We distributed it at the high schools in Columbus, Ohio. We went to each high school but we were not invited inside so we set out to distribute the leaflet on the outside not on the school property but just at the entrance. The first school that we did it at it was North High School.

The principal got on the loudspeaker and told the students not to take our leaflet. Well, what is going to make the students want to know what's in that leaflet more than the principal telling them not to take it? He was furious. To him, we were doing something that he obviously felt was totally unpatriotic and I'm sure he thought we were communists or aliens.

We ended up going not only to the high schools, but we would go to churches and we would do have a vigil outside of the churches. People were going and distributing, and the churches invited us in. We had conversations.

What advice would you give us for becoming lifelong activists?

Always become involved just like you have. You really learn by doing. How old are you and how do you pronounce your name?

Day-leen and I am 17.

Dayelin. Okay and you're 17. So what grade level are you in?

I will be a Senior in September.

Okay and what are your good subjects?

English, history, and theology.

Which school do you go to?

Loyola School on the Upper East Side.

By that gorgeous Church. Good. English and history. Those are wonderful subjects and it gives you a base to go on to do a whole host of things. My daughter's a journalist. She has always been a good writer. The field is wide open and it is a very good first degree because it gives you a real foundation. Do you have any idea what you would like to do?

I’m not sure yet.

That's why you’re getting involved and you learn so much.

I really got involved this past year, my Junior year. I've been involved in multiple service trips. Some have been to Camden in New Jersey and to Washington DC for the Ignatian Teach-In. I have really been involved in retreats as well and I have also been a part of my parish’s food pantry since the seventh grade. I've really gained the love for learning more and devoting my time towards service.

That’s beautiful. You're lucky that you're not graduating this year. For the students who are graduating this year, they just don't know. They don't know if the college that they want to go to is going to be open. By next year, it will probably have sorted itself out a little.

Do you think there's any other profession you would have done if it wasn't social work?

I enjoy the Arts. Design and that sort of thing. People always said I perhaps should have become a lawyer, but I don't write easily enough. I can write. The world separates out in terms of folks who can write and who cannot. There’s some people who just write very easily. My daughter was one of those. My son, who was the older one, two years apart, writing for him was torture. He had homework and he lived up in the attic when we lived in Ohio. He would go up and struggle with things, come down and show it, and go back up. It would take him three hours and my daughter would sit down and write something beautiful in like 20 minutes. It was totally unfair.

Who are some, if you have any, of your professional role models?

That’s a good question because yes, we are influenced by people. There’s a sort of mixture of people. During the war back In England, we would go, when bombing was bad at home home and in school holidays, to a farm way out where there wouldn't have been any bombing or anything at all. It was small. It was a farm with maybe two other houses. It wasn't even a village. The farm had took in four or five families and the kids would sleep up above the cow shed on sacks full of hay on bed frames. We would sleep above the cow shed and the parents would sleep in the farmhouse. There were three main rooms underneath the bedrooms on the on the ground floor which were set up as dining rooms. Each one had a big table that could serve about 10 people and the farmer's wife was Mrs. Cook. She and her sister Miss Wilcox did all the cooking. They did the cooking on a big aga oven.

There is a lot of rain in England even in the summer. Above the aga there was a wood frame for pulling up clothing that needed to be drying. There were kids running in and out. The farm dogs were running in and out. Nothing perturbed Mrs. Cook. She always had a good temperament. She could always come up with a solution. There were no rules in that place. At home there were rules and at boarding school there were rules. Just as a role model for somebody who can handle people and work with people in a really positive way.

I'm going to give another example that's very different. When the war began in England I was 6 and I was 12 when it ended. When I was probably about 15, at the annual Quaker meeting, Kathleen Lonsdale, who was a scientist, a petite lady with blonde hair that was like very curly. She gave a speech and she was relating science and religion. I can remember being very impressed by her. Actually it was quite recently that I read in the Times that it really wasn't until that time (1945 to 1950) that science really was accepted as a method for developing, for analysis, for factually gathering data. I was surprised by that. Kathleen Lonsdale I do remember as this scientist, the one scientist.

Although Quakers have believed in the equality for a long time. I certainly grew up feeling the need to have a sense that being a woman was equal to a man, although you did occasionally meet men who did not think that way. I got a theoretical academic background in sociology, which was a lot of history, psychology, economics, statistics, political science and etc.

The other role models where I have learned something are from the people in the community, from the ranks of the “poor.” I can remember a migrant farm worker family. I was down in Texas because after coming over with the Friends, I worked with the Council of Churches with migratory farmworkers. I worked in sugar beets with people who were taking the sugar beets up in North Dakota. I worked with ripers in the cherry harvest up in Michigan, pickles in Michigan, and then cotton down in Texas. I worked for the Council of Churches. I had a Jeep so I could travel from farm to farm. The Council of Churches equipped us with a movie projector, a number of movies to be shown, cameras and some other basic equipment.

In this particular farm there were not a lot of migrants. After I was there I had shown the movie on nutrition. I'm embarrassed to tell this story now looking back on it. It was teaching basic nutrition but the combination of protein, grains, and vegetables. After I'd been to that camp for the the second time, a mother of three young children said, “Come and have lunch this afternoon.” We had tomato sandwiches. Inside myself I said she's got the vegetable and she’s got the grains. I was out there another time and she said, “Come with me,” and I did. She said, “I do not have more than I had before.” We had potato sandwiches. That was an incredible journey. Most of the real learning has come from people who I was working with that just by sharing, pointed out a different way of doing things.

How long did it take you to gain connections and find the areas of social life that you've been involved in, such as the connections that you have developed?

Well, initially it was through the Society of Friends, the Quakers, just like you with the connection of the Ascension Church and your school. After I'd been here for over two years, I spent part of that time down in Mexico. I met an American man who was a social worker who was down in Mexico. We moved to New York, we worked out in Brooklyn for a number of years, and then moved to Columbus, Ohio. After 12 years in Columbus, we came back and those moves were predicated by his work.

If there was one thing you could change about doing all that you do, what would it be?

The most important thing right now is for people get out to vote.

What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself and why?

I could probably use the adjectives that my children might call me. I guess they might be different though. I've always had pretty good health. I'm 87 now and I will be 88 in December. I am in pretty good shape and healthy. Even when I was 35-37, I can remember a doctor saying to me “You shouldn’t be doing that. You should be behaving your age.” At that time I was camping, swimming, and hiking. I am an active person. I'm an optimistic person. I’ve had lots of different people living here. My husband's no longer alive but we always shared our house with people.

Back in Columbus, Ohio when the great boycott was going on and the farm workers union were sending people across the country they came to Columbus, and lived with us. It was a family of seven. The mother, father, and five children. My son by that time had the attic and my daughter had her room. So each of their rooms became the boys dormitory, and the girls. Chello and Pablo Cruz, we had a small guestroom.

Are there any special encounters you've had with people you've met through your work that really touched you?


Oh, yes. When I was directing University Settlement camp. University Settlement is the settlement house down on the Lower East Side. They had a summer camp in Beacon and I directed that camp for five years. I think in the third year or something like that there was a young woman who was just graduating from high school, going to be going on to NYU who was a counselor. She came to me and said that she didn't know where she would be living when she came back into the city. Then I said “Come and stay with us and from there you would be able to look around. See what you can find.” Lizzy lived with us for like three months. Then she thought she found a place and after a few months, she came back and probably lived with us for about the next five years. Then she got married to a very nice guy who was a double bass player and I met his father who was a teacher. The family was originally from Chicago. He then got caught up in drugs and Lizzy then came back. She had a baby. She came back for a while and throughout it all she studied and got a degree from NYU. She now has her doctorate degree and she's written a thesis which is published in a book and she now has two daughters. The oldest son is probably about 25 and one of the daughters is just finishing her first year at university. She’s down at the School for the Deaf in Washington. She's learning sign language and the other one should be going off to university in August. I don't know how Lizzy does it. She is calm, wonderful, and just amazing. I stand in awe of her.

What about giving back makes you feel successful?

There was an enormous need for food and the pantry, and the West Side Campaign Against Hunger was able to get more food and served many more people while gaining additional funding at that time. The thing that really stood out is that temperamentally, we were busy, we had something to do, which was meaningful while many other people became more anxious and nervous, because they were disoriented and didn't have things to do, and I know it's the same story then, now.

What advice would you give others who are running pantries and are involved in social work right now, during this pandemic and time of racial injustice?

It is really important that the opportunity that is present now with a wide recognition - the brutal killing of George Floyd - that it’s brought out the amount of people hitting the streets these days in non violent marches. It's just a new way of people of all colors and all descriptions. If the time can be used productively, it's a very hopeful time. One of the hopeful things is that some of the police are not standing just in a blind way in support as they have been in the past. We’ve had in the past such a militarization of the criminal justice system.

I can remember when I was working with the teenagers back in 1975 when Rockefeller was governor and the three strikes system existed. America has more people in prison than any other country. We have to make sure that the discussion takes place despite the President.

What advice would you give the youth for the future?

I'm saddened when I read about the amount of depression that the youth seem to be experiencing, and some of the college students; that sort of thing. I think people need to stay involved and doing things. That's where the lockdown has been difficult because people are being told you should stay at home. My advice is always stay involved. Stay involved, stay talking to friends, not the television. Stay in touch with friends face to face, do things together too and just always smile, always smile.

There’s been quite a focus in the newspapers on the amount of depression that young people go through. It is a very difficult time for people because the virus is something that people have just experienced. We can't predict what's going to happen because of the marches and things like that. Not everybody's been wearing a mask and there are going to be spikes in the virus from opening up. It's fascinating that the English speaking world, England and America are amongst some of the worst situations of the virus and more deaths of any other countries in the world.

Now, some countries we may not be getting accurate information from, but what information do we have? The countries led by women are amongst the best. Are you aware that New Zealand, Norway, Finland, and Germany are all headed by women?

Wow I did not know that! I have one last question. Is there any quote you live by?

My mother used to say something to me and it certainly comes back into my mind now that my grandchildren are between 20 and 30. My mother, when I was a little bit younger, would say, “Be good and if you can't be good, be careful.”

Looking back at that, that was an amazing time. We understand in exploring. Young people should do some things differently. It is a time of exploration.

Yes! It was nice to get to know you Doreen.

Lovely to get to know you. It was wonderful to meet you.

Thank you so much.

Where is your food program?

Our food program is on 107th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway.

Is it at the church?

Yes there's a center right next to the church, and that is where it is held now, outdoors. We used to have it every fourth Saturday of every month and then once the pandemic hit we realized that people were going to lack their basic necessities more and they weren't going to have enough financial stability in order to get food. So it was changed to every Saturday ever since quarantine started with many precautions such as standing six feet apart and not having too many people involved.

Yes, good. We all learn by doing.

Yes, we do. It's definitely been a learning experience you know? The status of the economy is really saddening.

Yes I agree. Well maybe after we can move out a little, I can come and visit.

Yay! I would love that. Stay well.

Likewise, bye bye!