Photo by Michael Gaines
Above, former Lower East Side VISTA worker Michael Gaines can’t remember the name of the first boy on the left, but the others in this 40-year-old photo, from left, are Ivan, Mario, Edwin and Carlos. The only last names that Gaines remembers are Medina and Vasquez, but he’s not sure which belongs to whom. Below at left, Gaines with Ivan, left, and Edwin.
VISTA volunteer who helped kids hopes for rendezvous
Call him crazy or a dreamer, but when Michael Gaines arrives in New York on the 23rd of this month on a vacation, he’s gambling on the chance he can reunite with some of the kids he came to know 40 years ago. Only now, of course, they would be middle-aged adults.
In 1968 and 1969, Gaines was a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker on the Lower East Side, mostly through Hamilton-Madison House settlement house. His favorite part of the work was “being a kind of big brother” to a handful of neighborhood kids ranging from 7 to 11 years old.
During that “eventful period,” as Gaines put it, he helped the youths with homework and took them on cultural trips around the city to museums and the Statue of Liberty and to Coney Island, on picnics, and grew very fond of his “little brothers.”
His mentoring relationship with the youngsters, however, came to an end soon after he was mugged in his apartment building hallway with a knife at his throat. He returned to Los Angeles a month later.
“It took a while for the nerves to return to normal,” he said.
Today Gaines lives in West Los Angeles where he owns a company that videotapes depositions. He also is a photographer and videographer and his photos have appeared in National Geographic Adventure magazine.
Over the years, although he didn’t keep in touch with any of the residents he had worked with, he often dreamed of going back to find these boys, and often wondered whether he had had a good influence on them and how they made out.
Gaines knows, as he said, that it’s a “wild, long shot,” but is hoping to find the kids that he once worked with, now grown into adults.
“If anyone reading this was one of these kids or thinks they might know anyone living in or around the Alfred E. Smith Houses projects in ’68 or so, or just thinks they might be able to help in some way to contact these guys, please contact myself, [the paper] or Illyse Kaplan at Hamilton-Madison House,” Gaines said.
To reach Gaines by e-mail, write him at firstname.lastname@example.org; to reach Downtown Express, e-mail news@DowntownExpress.com or call 646-452-2464; and to reach Hamilton-Madison House, call 212-349-3724.