Heidi Hynes, Transplanted Crusader for the Poor, Dies at 51


Heidi Hynes grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where both her parents were gregarious volunteers for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic group whose credo is “End Poverty Through Systemic Change.”

As a teenager, she searched for a racially integrated church to join — “which in Kansas City was not easy to find,” her mother, Michele Schloegel, said — and one year Heidi even desegregated the holiday decorations.

“I am decorating my angel Christmas tree,” Ms. Schloegel said, “and I remembered the first time Heidi saw it, she said ‘Mom!’ and went right out with her sister to get me some black angels.”

All of which may help explain why Ms. Hynes, after attending the Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx in the 1980s and majoring in philosophy, stayed in the borough and devoted her career to improving the lives of her mostly nonwhite and poor neighbors.

From 1997 through mid-2018, when she developed the rectal cancer that led to her death at her home in the Bronx on Nov. 29 at 51, Ms. Hynes was the executive director of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in the Crotona section of the South Bronx, which runs after-school classes, a self-defense program, a fresh produce cooperative called La Canasta (the Basket) and community gardens. The center was founded in 1997 and named after an early organizer of youth and employment programs in the Bronx.

An alumnus of the Catholic Worker Movement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Ms. Hynes served for a year with the Franciscan Friars of Atonement at its mission in Jamaica. She then worked as a tenant and housing community organizer for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition before joining the Mary Mitchell Center.

She fell in love with the community, and she never left,” Lurgen Guzman, the center’s program director, said.

Ms. Hynes was indefatigable in her advocacy.

Demanding that the government help homeowners swamped by debt accumulated in the subprime mortgage crisis in the 2000s, she picketed the home of Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman at the time, and joined a small group that met with him privately.

Complaining that local teenagers often risked their lives by joining the military only because they had few other options, she vigorously opposed the Iraq war and protested against it with Bronx Action for Justice and Peace, one of a number of antiwar groups formed across the country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Neither Kansas City nor New York neighborhoods were models of racial integration, and while Fordham had taken steps to commingle with the community, the campus that greeted her in the mid-1980s was a largely white enclave surrounded by poor black and Hispanic neighbors.

By then the Bronx had hemorrhaged non-Hispanic whites. Landlords had often abandoned or even burned down their buildings, deciding that the rents they charged, though too high for many tenants, were insufficient to make continued ownership profitable.

“She didn’t think there was anything wrong with those people in the neighborhood, and she was drawn to helping them,” her husband, Brian T. Hynes, said in a phone interview. “As she continued to look at health, education, housing and other disparities, she never lost that sense of the original injustice of segregation, which guaranteed that browner people were in communities that had the worst of everything.”

Income inequality and concomitant barriers to affordable housing meant less mingling of the poor with the rich, Ms. Hynes said.

“People who are poor help people who are poor more than rich people do,” she told The New York Times in 2014. “That’s because we live with each other and know each other. Other people think the poor are trying to scam them. That’s the saddest part of the hyper-segregation of this city — that people in need are deemed unworthy. ”

Ms. Hynes was determined, her husband said, to direct her energy, optimism and middle-class prerogatives toward concrete progress.

“She felt like the way to address the relative privileges that she had, to make them not be a stain on her,” Mr. Hynes said, “was to use them to try to help a community flourish when it had so many factors pointing it away from flourishing.”

Heidi Marie Schloegel was born in Kansas City on Jan. 19, 1968, to Frank J. Schloegel III and Ann Michele (McGrath) Schloegel. Her father pioneered a dental health maintenance plan in Kansas City and later opened a restaurant, Woodyard Bar-B-Que. Her mother was a homemaker and is now chief financial officer of the dental plan.

The family moved to Windsor, Ontario, then returned to Missouri when Heidi was 10. She graduated from St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Fordham in 1990 and serving as an aid worker in Jamaica, she took a $10-a-week social service job on the Lower East Side and moved into the Catholic Worker House, where she met her future husband.

The couple married in 1995. In addition to Mr. Hynes, who confirmed the death, and her mother, Ms. Hynes is also survived by their daughter, Frieda; her father; her sister, Theresa Scott; and her brother, Frank IV.

In the Bronx, she worked with Astin Jacobo, a community organizer who established the Mary Mitchell Center in 1997.

“She became a Bronxite by stint of her commitment, openheartedness and guileless conviction that a better world was possible,” said Eileen Markey, who met Ms. Hynes as a fellow student at Fordham and is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. “She knew the game was rigged for the rich and mighty, but she believed God dwelt on the other end of the scale and was worth fighting for.”

Those who knew Ms. Hynes best praised her as selfless (“People would become better if they stopped trying to be better off,” she said) and courageous.

“She had no fear, or didn’t let it stop her from doing what she thought needed to be done,” her mother said in an interview.

In 2009, after a stray bullet whizzed into the outdoor basketball court of the Mary Mitchell Center, she protested gun violence by transplanting the center’s after-school program to the steps of City Hall.

She fought for more city spending on after-school programs, declaring: “The kids in Crotona need prevention, not policing. We want to keep them from getting in fights and not shooting each other, not catch them after they shoot somebody.”

At her wake, Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, said: “What I loved about Heidi the most is that she defended our leadership behind our backs, but, boy, did she give us hell to our faces. That is a true friend.”

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