WESTY 2023 Honoree: Ilze Thielmann helps asylum seekers face the daunting challenges of life in NYC

After getting the old heave-ho from a temporary welcome center that was dispensing clothes and advice in the Port Authority bus terminal, Ilze Thielmann found a new home for Team TLC NYC. Now she’s doing good works from a permanent base in a boutique shop in what was once the reading room of the Seventh Day Adventists on west 40th St. across from Bryant Park.

| 05 May 2023 | 12:57

When Ilze Thielman first started working with Team TLC NYC in 2019, she was a volunteer making care packages, sorting clothes and helping to make connections and transport. Then the trickle became a flood as bus loads of asylum seekers started arriving from Texas.

Now the retired corporate lawyer is the head of Team TLC NYC. And she recently found herself scrambling to find a new home to give out the supplies and legal help that the organization has been providing as the trickle became a flood and then unexpectedly slowed again. And the city, which had for awhile let them set up a welcome center in Port Authority, said they no longer felt it was necessary to have it inside the bus terminal.

But with tens of thousands of immigrant asylum seekers already here Thielmann felt their needs were greater than ever. And she was desperate to find a new home for the all-volunteer organization to continue its work. That’s when she encountered Everette Samuel, the communications outreach coordinator for the Greater New York Chapter of Seventh Day Adventists.

“I told her we were desperate to find a new space,” Thielmann recalled. She said, “Can you meet me someplace right now?”

And Samuel took her to the former reading room of the Seventh Day Adventists in midtown Manhattan on West 40th Street, on a bustling street right across from Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

And that became their permanent new home. “She’s been incredible,” Thielmann says of Samuel. “She came to our rescue. She’s been an angel.”

They landed there in late March and began transforming the reading room into an upscale boutique to give their “customers” the sense of an elegant retail shop. Instead of getting a hand out in a package, they can check out clothes. “We even have a fitting room,” Thielmann noted.

Once a day, around noon, they get donated food from the Holy Apostle Church on Tenth Ave and 28th St. “They bring sandwiches, water, apples, five days a week,” Thielmann said, “we provide coffee, cookies and juice boxes.”

Now the shelves that held books are filled with another valuable commodity–shoes. The front half has desks and chairs where asylum seekers and advisers can sort through paperwork. And if their kids come along, there are toys and kids books in Spanish to keep them occupied.

“We opened here March 28, giving out clothing, toiletries, shoes, baby supplies like diapers and strollers and bikes, toys and books,” Thielmann said.

She also has a legal table where they can be referred to various agencies that supply everything from health care to legal advice. “We’re trying to expand that,” she said. There are now lawyers available two days a week.

Among the badly needed supplies are men’s pants, packages of underwear, tampons, and diapers. Not generally needed are men’s clothing in the XXL size range or fancy stiletto high heels.

While the mass bus loads seem to have slowed for the moment, there is still a mountain of confusing paperwork that asylum seekers must wade through. “One day last week we served 93 people,” she said. “Most days, we’re helping 60 to 80 people.”

The city is estimated that there were 45,000 asylum seekers in NYC by the end of last year. “The number is much higher now,” Thielmann said.

She grew up in West Babylon, graduated from Princeton and got a law degree from Columbia. She also married another lawyer, Aitken Thompson, divorced him, and then remarried him in 2015. They are still together. She had a baby in 1994 all while climbing the corporate ladder in the legal world. She finished her corporate career as a partner in high stakes corporate litigation practice in health care at Whatley Kallas, from which she retired in 2017. “I enjoyed my career, but it had run its course,” she said.

By 2019, she said like many people she was “outraged,” by the way immigrant asylum seekers were being treated by the Trump administration. “There were these horrible images of the way people were being treated at the border, families being separated and kids kept in cages.” She decided she wanted to do something. “I did a Google search and found this group that was just starting up,” she said. It was founded by Virginia Child, who eventually co-headed it with Margaret Seiler. When Child left, Seiler asked Thielmann to co-head the unpaid position in 2020. When Seiler also left, Thielmann became the sole head, just as things became particularly frantic.

Last August, they were tipped off that Governor Abbott of Texas, who had already started sending busloads of immigrants to northeasst destinations, was going to start sending buses to New York City.

They met with city officials including Manuel Castro, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. There she met Adama Bah, an activist and former asylum seeker who only became a citizen herself last year. “She’s been in invaluable ally,” said Thielmann.

She began working with groups from Rethink Food to Hungry Monks and South Bronx Mutual Aide, all trying to coordinate food, shelter and paperwork help for the newly arrived.

And her past as a corporate lawyer comes in handy as she tries to manage an organization that she estimates will need about $400,000 this year. “We don’t have $400,000,” she says. “we’re trying to get grants and fundraise.”

“Team TLC is not going to solve all their problems, but we can help with their day to day needs,” Thielmann said. “Last year, we had 1,000 volunteers who signed up to work shifts.”

“I tell all our volunteers, ‘Don’t concentrate on what we can’t do, just concentrate on what we can do.’” They are always looking for quality donated clothes, funds and people willing to donate time.

While there is a never ending demand, she says the response by New Yorkers has been a tremendous.

“People are really showing up for us,” Thielmann says. “The generosity of New Yorkers is mind boggling.”

“People are really showing up for us.The generosity of New Yorkers is mind boggling.” Ilze Thielmann, head of Team TLC NYC