Interview With Emily Borghard, Founder of Sidewalk Samaritan

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Sidewalk Samaritan

In honor of Pay it Forward Day on April 28, we are spotlighting Emily Borghard, LMSW, a clinical social worker at Columbia Neurology and the founder of Sidewalk Samaritan, a nonprofit organization in New York City that provides basic necessities–including clothes, blankets, toiletries, and food–to unhoused individuals and people in need.

For many years, from her teens into early adulthood, Borghard suffered from auto-immune encephalitis, which went undiagnosed until her college years and caused hundreds of debilitating seizures per day. A neurologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center diagnosed her and suggested that an experimental brain stimulator be implanted in her skull. She was one of the first in the world to receive this treatment, which greatly diminished the frequency of her seizures and gave her access to more opportunities in her life than she had previously deemed possible.

After graduating from SUNY Geneseo with a Bachelor’s degree in French and Spanish, Borghard taught English as a second language in France, and was inspired by the kind ways in which the French treated individuals living on the street. She found her calling as a social worker and earned a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) from Fordham University.

Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us! You have quite a remarkable story. Could you start by telling me more about your background and how you discovered your passion for social work?

Emily Borghard: It took time. I was in a car accident after which I was having seizures and my memory was getting worse, so it looked like there was a more serious problem. My family and friends were my biggest support system, speaking up for me until we finally found a doctor who figured out what was going on. To this day, I think about the many people who stood up for me and helped me out, and I keep paying that forward. I would not be where I am today without them. From this experience, I realized I can never pay it back, so social work allows me to keep paying it forward, and I can be that voice for others that my family and friends were for me.

FPC: How did your training and education in social work lead you to Sidewalk Samaritan?

EB: Everything I do throughout social work is working to help people – with domestic violence issues, case management, and figuring out the next steps for patients who have been discharged from the hospital. I love being able to work with my clients, but there are many who do not receive professional help because they are unhoused or potentially worried about their immigration status and therefore do not seek help. I wanted to make sure these folks also had a chance, so I began talking to them and quickly learned that what they needed the most were sleeping bags, underwear, warm clothing, etc. I spoke with them the same way I would talk to my social work clients, which let me get to know them and understand how to help.

FPC: How has Sidewalk Samaritan grown and evolved since you founded it in 2019? What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on your work?

EB: In the beginning, it was just me going to certain subway stations, knowing that the men I had met would sleep there, and handing out bags of socks and toiletries. A local law school helped me file the paperwork for Sidewalk Samaritan to become an official non-profit organization, and since then we’ve built a network of volunteers and are hitting five years this month. We began to partner with other companies, like MV Sport for example, who donated terrific sweatpants and sweatshirts. And, by talking to more people, we found more sites, including shelters and streetside locations, where we could make the biggest difference. 

What started as conversations and providing basic necessities became a more urgent need to keep these individuals safe through COVID. I heard from people on the streets that they were no longer allowed to sleep in certain subway stations, and that public restrooms they had relied on were closed. This forced more people to sleep–and urinate–in the streets. The public complained, but the homeless population had no other choice. Things have become a bit more lax now, and I have started going back to subway stations that had been abandoned, because people are staying there again. But I think COVID gave the public a platform to push back against homeless folks using the few public bathrooms NYC has available, saying they were going to spread COVID if they used them. 

FPC: You grew up on a dairy sheep farm in upstate New York, where your mother made cheese –yum! How did growing up on a farm impact your views of food systems and agriculture, especially now that you work in a big city environment and with people in great need of food?

EB: I loved growing up on the farm, but even more than that, I loved coming into the city with my mom to take her product to markets. From a young age, I noticed the issues of food waste in the city and kept wondering why no one had figured out a more successful way to distribute this high-quality food to people in need, instead of their having to dig through the trash. To this day, as a social worker, I make sure my social work patients know that if they have EBT, they can use it at farmer’s markets to get food bucks–most do not know that. I want them to be excited that they can get some fresh food! And, more importantly, if eligible individuals are not enrolled in EBT, I get them connected with the resources they need to do so, because it can be overwhelming for them on their own.

FPC: We understand that food aid is not the primary focus of Sidewalk Samaritan. There are only so many needs you can address at one time! But, based on the interactions you’ve had with unhoused and migrant populations, how are their nutritional needs being met, if at all? Is food access seen as a lesser need than shelter and warmth?

EB: Trust me, I wish I could cover it ALL. But you are right that it is too much at once. Before COVID, I had lists of soup kitchens in each borough where people could go inside to warm up and eat. I would provide this information to people on the streets, and many took advantage of the opportunity to spend time with others. During COVID, though, emergency food assistance became more grab-and-go, and many did not like this change. They were seeking not only food but also fellowship. They wanted to talk, relax, and feel a connection with others.

Now, I encourage my social work patients to talk with their caseworkers about getting food access and benefits. I hope they will seek and receive the help they need to complete the enrollment paperwork. But again, that is not a fast process. 

For the people I work with on the street who are in need of more immediate food, we have a regular donor who sends a large supply of McDonald’s gift cards that we can distribute, with the hope being that people can go inside to warm up and have something to eat.

FPC: What is one policy you would like to see enacted in NYC that would help people in need?

EB: I know COVID is always on everyone’s mind, but I am hoping that we can move forward from that and, as a result, come up with some better living and dining options for the many people on the streets. It would be ideal to give them the chance to take better care of themselves while also safely connecting with others. I would love to say a shelter-for-all policy, but that would be a huge undertaking, so maybe we could start with implementing more well-directed warming and cooling centers that also provide food handouts in order to positively impact a greater number of people. 

FPC: What do you hope to accomplish with Sidewalk Samaritan in the next five years? How do you measure success?

EB: When we started, I would never have guessed this was where Sidewalk would be now. It was just me handing out socks on the subway! Now we have a team of volunteers, we work with companies who donate supplies, and we provide handouts at least three weekends a month, if not more. I can only hope we can expand our network of donors, get more people involved for streetside handouts, and perhaps acquire a mobile unit! 

Success for me is just seeing the smile on someone’s face or their asking if they can hug you to say thanks. It does not have to be about numbers but about the full impact we have been able to have.

FPC: What final thoughts would you like to share for Pay it Forward Day?

EB: Pay it Forward Day is very special for me, particularly since this year it will mark our five-year anniversary since founding Sidewalk Samaritan as a nonprofit. I have read the book Pay it Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde more than once, watched the movie (based on the book), and Catherine Ryan Hyde has been in contact with me on several occasions. This day reminds me that, not so long ago, I was struggling with a medical condition and wondering how my life could move forward. I had SO many people supporting and advocating for me. As I mentioned, I can never fully pay any of them back for all they did to fight for me, so that is where paying it forward comes in. We have a society that tends to think about paying people back, but where would we be if everyone just paid it forward? In New York City, there are many brick-and-mortar organizations (e.g. shelters, soup kitchens, etc.) that are set up to help people without permanent housing. Sidewalk Samaritan was established to be the “boots on the ground.” We talk to people on the streets to find out what their immediate needs are and help provide them. Sidewalk was born from my trying to figure out how to “practice what I preach” and start paying it forward.

Grew up in: Shushan, NY

City or town you call home: Harlem

Job title: LMSW at Columbia for MS and Epilepsy

Background and education: I studied French, Spanish, and education but received a Masters in Social Work and my LMSW

One word you would use to describe our food system: Wasteful

Food policy hero: Ooh that is a tough one, but Annette Nielsen

Your breakfast this morning: Yogurt!

Favorite food: I love yogurt, berries, and Chinese food

Favorite last meal on Earth: Sushi

Favorite food hangout: Any of the mom and pop Chinese places in NYC ! You can’t find those anywhere else. 

Food policy social media must follow: Grow NYC

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