A little over a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the organization that took the local lead in aiding victims and resettling 450 families in our area celebrated 49 years of service — and announced hiring a new leader for the future.
Two hundred people were in attendance Thursday night at Amarante’s Sea Cliff Restaurant in Morris Cove to celebrate one year shy of the half century mark for the organization, Fair Haven-based Junta for Progressive Action (JUNTA).
Joining elected officials at the event were Karla Pantoja and Edwin Hernandez and their two kids Edrielys and Miie, who are remaining in New Haven, as are many of the families driven from their homes after the hurricane ravaged the island on Sept. 16, 2017.
JUNTA Interim Executive Director Alicia Caraballo, whose mom was one of the organization’s 16 founding families in 1969, said JUNTA performed not only its regular service and advocacy work but also extra feats of service and compassion as the city’s lead aid organization for Maria evacuees. Mayor Toni Harp described JUNTA as doing “pound for pound more for the victims than the federal government.”
Caraballo said that the year reaffirmed the original mission of JUNTA.
About 40 percent of JUNTA’s approximately half-million dollar budget comes from the state. That amount has been slashed during the recent cash-strapped years in Hartford, Caraballo noted. She characterized Thursday’s celebration and the moment for the organization as “emotionally positive but financially uncertain.”
That’s in part why a search committee and an outside firm sifted through hundreds of applicants and settled on a new executive director who combines executive experience in a service and policy advocacy organization with a track record of finding new funding sources in tough fiscal times.
That man, whom Caraballo introduced to applause from the party-goers, is Daniel Reyes. He joined a food advocacy organization, The New York Common Pantry, in East Harlem, 15 years ago as a program director. He rose to become its deputy executive director,.
During that time, the last five years of which Reyes was deputy executive director, the annual budget of the organization grew from $1.5 milion to $13 million, he said.
That caught the eye of the search committee, said JUNTA Board Chair Dominic Woolfrey.
Reyes, who currently lives in Queens, commutes to see his kids in Wallingford. He said he was drawn to coming to New Haven by JUNTA’s long and rich history in helping people and in advocacy.
“For people who experience poverty, it’s important for them to work for their own betterment,” he said. He lauded JUNTA as working on the larger systemic issues and as a policy advocate as well. It has been on the front lines of helping immigrants, including undocumented immigrants targeted by the federal government.
How does he plan to approach the precarious nature of the group’s funding? Short answer: “I place a strong emphasis on diversified funding streams.”
Reyes said he is giving himself a 90-day period to create an “action plan.” Its aim: To get to know the organization, review metrics, and acquaint himself with funding sources and community partners.
He plans to assess which kinds of activities JUNTA does best and to highlight them as the organization approaches foundations and other new funders.
“I have a long history” of being able to demonstrate how an organization is the “best steward of resources we’re given,” he added.
The evening’s recipients of JUNTA awards included Kica Matos, who revived and built up the organization as its executive director in the early aughts and was presented with the social justice and civil justice award; philanthropist William Graustein, who was given the group’s Community Partnership Award; and city emergency management chief Rick Fontana, who received the Humanitarian Award for his role in helping to coordinate help for Maria evacuees.
Reyes begins his job at JUNTA’s helm on Sept. 24.