Yvonne Stennett is the executive director of the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) in Washington Heights. The nonprofit organization founded in 1952 offers services to disadvantaged residents in the neighborhood and is dedicated to finding solutions to poverty.
Stennett has dedicated most of her life to the organization, starting out as a youth counselor in 1979 and working her way up to executive director in 1994. Looking back on her nearly 30 years as the head of CLOTH, she said that coming there for a job 42 years ago was “divine intervention.”
“It has been a blessing and a lot of work but I think we’ve been able to achieve quite a lot and expanded the portfolio,” Stennett said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work and I’m grateful to have the ability to do it.”
The mother of four children and 13 grandchildren, Stennett was born in Jamaica, W.I. Her family came to New York when she was eight years old. She eventually graduated from the historically Black Lincoln University. She returned to New York and worked for the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.
After the birth of her first child, Stennett applied for a job at CLOTH as a property manager but the organization’s founder and executive director at the time, Lucille Bulger, offered her a position as youth counselor. Since her time with the organization, Stennett has since continued her education at Columbia University and Harvard University business schools, receiving certifications.
“We always struggle with trying to find out what our purpose in life is and I think over the years I’ve grown to know that my purpose is to be of service,” she said. “Every morning I’m blessed by the opportunity to get up and touch someone’s life, sometimes in very small ways, sometimes in very big ways. I want to feel like I’m doing God’s work.”
That work includes creating nearly 560 units of affordable housing, offering an afterschool program to more than 200 K-12 students and serving more than 600 families through CLOTH’s food pantry. CLOTH also serves as the social service provider for the PACT Renaissance Collaborative who are helping 3,000 residents through NYCHA’s PACT program.
Stennett’s work has not gone unnoticed. She’s received the Ellen Sulzberger Straus Leadership Award from the Enterprise Foundation, the Courage in Community Award from the McAuley Institute, and the Brooke Russell Astor Award from the New York City Public Library for her years of service and commitment to community development.
“The community needs to have trust in the organizations within their community, consistency, care and accountability builds trust,” she said. “Furthermore, the needs of our community still exist and I believe that our organization is needed and necessary to continue addressing those needs because it knows how to do so. I personally think that I still have some work to do to ensure that our legacy will continue and when my spirit tells me that I have done the best I can do to ensure that then it will be time to go. My responsibility to those who built this agency will have been met.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stennett oversaw CLOTH’s continued efforts even though some funding went astray, leading her to become creative and innovative about how to spend the funding the organization receives.
CLOTH has been able to do 11,000 wellness calls to people to ensure they have what they need during the pandemic. The organization also made food deliveries to several housing developments, particularly to seniors. CLOTH created a tech program to teach seniors and others how to use Zoom.
As far as what she wants to do next, Stennett wants to make sure CLOTH lives on. Stennett and her team are currently in their strategic plan looking ahead at the next five years.
“We’re really trying to make sure that we solidify all the work that we’ve done and have an infrastructure that will make sure the work goes forward,” she said. “There are several other projects that we’re working on, but the main focus is right now trying to strategically structure the organization so that we can do it [and] we can be ready for the future.”