Guardian Angela: Angela McKnight Sets a New Standard of Care for the City’s Elderly

Angela McKnight with one of the seniors at AngelaCARES  – Photos by Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Nothing can be certain except death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin. But if you ask a Greenville resident, they might offer up a third certainty: Angela McKnight (pictured above, left).

McKnight, 36, has always been the neighborhood’s go-to woman. She’s the founder of AngelaCARES, a resource for local seniors and youth, which celebrated its second anniversary this October. She was also recognized as a Jersey City Woman of Action for 2013.

Growing up in Greenville, McKnight took on a motherly role among her siblings even though as the fifth of eight children, she was one of the youngest in the family.

“I was very independent and my family always depended on me. They looked up to me to take a stand, cook dinner, and look after my little brother and sister. I was always making sure everyone was OK,” says McKnight. As an adult, she also helped care for her mother, Priscilla Odoms, who was diagnosed with dementia and diabetes in 2004.

After graduating from Ferris High School in the top 10 percent of her class (an impressive feat considering that teenaged McKnight was also working at Sears and raising her daughter Ana’jah, now 20), she got a job as a secretary at the Block Drug Company where her intelligence, warmth, and ability to connect with and help others were once again at the forefront.

“I just started helping everyone out. I was very good with computers, good at showing people how to do things… so I started to train people and did that with my other duties,” she recalls. “People said, ‘You can always count on Angela. She can always help you.’”

Her last stint in the traditional workforce was a decade at Knowledge Point 360, a Secaucus-based healthcare information company, where she eventually became a director and was well-liked by her colleagues.

McKnight was good at her job and she enjoyed it. She married her high school sweetheart, Anthony McKnight Sr., and had two children, Ana’jah and son Anthony Jr., now 12. She was studying business administration at St. Peter’s University. Life was good.

Then tragedy struck. Her mother’s health took a turn for the worse. In November of 2005, Odoms passed away from a massive stroke. A few years later, her maternal grandmother Jessie Mae Johnson, whom McKnight had been caring for during an almost two-decade-long battle with colon cancer, suffered a mild stroke and kidney failure.

“My uncle, James Johnson, didn’t want to put her in a nursing home, and she didn’t want to go. Nor did she want to have dialysis. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help her. And I’ll help you.’ I became her main caregiver. I made sure her doctor appointments, medicine, and everything was OK and in tip-top shape,” says McKnight. That experience taught her a lot about caring for seniors, with one stand-out tenet.

“She did not want to relinquish her independence,” says McKnight. “When I was helping her, I included her. I included her in writing her bills out. When it came to what she wanted for breakfast, I didn’t say, ‘Granny, you’re having cereal today.’ I asked her what she wanted so she still felt empowered.”

Johnson passed away on January 1, 2011, two hours before her 84th birthday. McKnight was devastated, but she discovered her calling from the experience.

“After going through the death of my mother, my oldest brother Jonathan Odoms getting hit by a car in 2010, and my grandmother passing away… After losing my loved ones, I just wanted to do more and give back more.

“I noticed a void with our seniors. Some family members live so far away that they don’t come see their older relatives, and some care-taking professionals just do it for a paycheck,” she says. “My heart was opened to the senior population. I left the corporate world almost three years ago and I haven’t looked back.”

In 2010, McKnight started Care About You, a for-profit company that helped seniors do everything from completing applications and managing bills to finding housing and reading their mail.

Soon after, however, McKnight realized that since many seniors live on a fixed income, a nonprofit might be able to do more good than her for-profit firm could do alone.

In October 2011, she founded AngelaCARES, a nonprofit that acts as a support system for seniors. In 2012, they served 1,200 seniors on a shoestring annual budget of $14,000, cobbled together through fundraising events and by the organization’s six board members (including McKnight, her daughter, and her husband). As of July, they had served over 200 seniors in 2013. In January, they opened a chapter in Las Vegas headed by a woman (very appropriately) named Angela Serraile.

“I’m amazed at how far we’ve come with nothing,” said Anthony McKnight Sr. “It’s a good thing and we’ve helped a lot of people.”

AngelaCARES’ Here4Seniors program takes many cues from Care About You. Seniors in the program go on weekly walks and monthly trips. They develop close relationships with volunteers and workers at the organization, who visit the seniors and greet them on holidays and birthdays.

The program also holds seminars to educate seniors and help them live better lives. For instance, the Jersey City Police Department spoke to the seniors about safety, a Medicare expert walked them through the confusing world of healthcare and insurance, and a massage therapist came to ease their aches and pains over a six-week period.

And when senior rights are threatened, AngelaCARES steps in as an advocate. For example, the organization has helped make sure voting is easily accessible for local seniors. “We are their voice,” says McKnight.

Ana Ortiz, part-time worker for AngelaCARES through the Easter Seals of NJ Senior Community Service Employment Program, says McKnight has helped her improve herself and reach others. “She is a very nice lady and it’s very good what she’s doing for the senior people,” Ortiz says. “They help me with friendship and I feel OK with them.”

Volunteer Marilyn Oliver, the youth director for AngelaCARES, remembers a day in early June when they helped rescue a 65-year-old woman from an Arlington Avenue home where she and two others lived with an estimated 30 cats, wallowing in hoarded garbage and human and animal feces.

“She could not live there any longer. She didn’t want to go, but she had to. The conditions were unbearable,” says Oliver. Today, she lives in a clean, safe home and is one of AngelaCARES’ clients.

“We helped her and continue to assist her,” says Oliver. “We want to let seniors know that we care. We’re not going to help and leave.”

In addition to serving seniors, AngelaCARES also looks out for senior caregivers and local youth. The nonprofit’s emPOWER Senior Caregivers program acts as a support group and educational resource for those taking care of older or ailing individuals.

“Our program allows caregivers, whether young or old, to sit down and talk to one another, bounce ideas around, and listen to professionals on the ways you can negate caregiver burnout, or just how to better help your senior,” says McKnight. “When I was a caregiver, I only had my Uncle James and my husband to talk to and sometimes it was very stressful.

“I think if I were able to sit in a room with people going through the same thing I was going through, it would’ve helped me a lot along the way.”

Another program from AngelaCARES, Joining Our Youth and Seniors (JOYS), does exactly what its name implies. JOYS has its roots in the nonprofit’s very first activity in 2011.

“For Thanksgiving a lot of people get free meals, but I thought, ‘What can we do differently?’ I love doing things differently,” says McKnight. She called Golden Door Charter School, where her son will be entering the eighth grade this fall, and asked them to lend a few young volunteers. “We came to the auditorium and prepared the food while involving the kids. They helped package the meals and some even helped deliver them to seniors who live alone.”

Today, the program encourages local youth to volunteer to help and bond with seniors. Young program members are paired with seniors to develop close relationships or both groups are brought together for activities and talks.

“We need to let seniors know we still care for them. They paved the way for us. Let the younger generation care for their elderly,” says McKnight, adding that the relationship goes both ways.

“Seniors have knowledge and wisdom. They have gone through so much and can share the past history with our youth so they can be our future leaders of tomorrow. They can tell you things about going through war and segregation that you can’t learn from textbooks. Our seniors have lived it.

“Just because they’re 65 or 70 doesn’t mean they have to sit down and do nothing. We should tap into them and let them continue to provide for the younger generation… It’s a give and take,” she says.

McKnight’s niece, Daniqua McKnight, 21, says she’s learned a great deal from the program and from occasionally helping out at the AngelaCARES headquarters on Ocean Avenue with paperwork and administrative tasks.

“I’ve learned a lot about patience,” says the St. Peter’s student, who is studying criminal justice. “You have to be very, very patient with seniors and with children. I’ve also learned that it’s OK to ask for help when you need it.

“I want the program to grow,” adds Daniqua. “It’s doing well but I’d like to see it grow and touch everywhere. Not just Jersey City, but everywhere.”

McKnight does, too. “I want AngelaCARES to not just be in Jersey City, but throughout the nation,” she says. “I also want to have a building where we have facilities for seniors to come in and enjoy recreation, for us to have an after- school program for kids to come in… I want it to be a one-stop shop for seniors.”

One challenge, however, will be to find funding. AngelaCARES receives donations, holds fundraisers, and is applying for grants in the coming year, but they will need more. McKnight’s emergency funds and savings have dried up and she often wonders how she’ll even make rent.

“I don’t know how funding is going to come but each and every day I get up wanting to help and having faith, believing that through God anything is possible.

I don’t know how to pay my bills but I won’t let that stop me,” she says. “I’m so passionate about helping our seniors and I’ll do whatever I have to do to help them. My own money has depleted but I continue to do what I have to do to fulfill the mission of AngelaCARES.

“We have the Division of Senior Affairs in Jersey City (and other local organizations helping) but one person cannot do it by themselves. We need multiple entities working for the greater good. I’m just one piece of the pie. But a lot of slices form a beautiful pie.”

AngelaCARES is located at 696 Ocean Ave., 201 201 685 7273. For more information, visit angelacares.org

This article appeared in the the 2013 Fall issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Two photos of the senior outings courtesy Angela McKnight. All other photos by Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.