Catching the D Train from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Bryant Park in Manhattan only takes about 25 minutes, yet these two areas of New York might as well be worlds apart. In one world we were the gawking tourists, looking a little bedraggled wearing our t-shirts and sandals among the designer-dressed professionals. We rolled our eyes at the inflated prices and decided that we wouldn’t be eating at the park side cafe where the average entree was in the $35 range. Instead, we drank water at a table near a gorgeous fountain and wondered what it would be like to have the money to afford one of those towering penthouse apartments tucked at the top of the shiny glass buildings surrounding us.
This was a stark contrast from the world we just left where we had spent the day volunteering at a nonprofit called Children of the City. Located in a predominantly Hispanic and Asian neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the drop-out rate is 50% and a vast majority of families live below the poverty line, Children of the City is focused on giving young people a different vision for the future. Rather than a life of poverty and welfare, founder Joyce Mattera wants these kids to see a path to an education and a career. She and her staff work every day with the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty for as many children as possible.
And it’s working. The many success stories range from a bright young girl who gained the confidence she needed for college to a former gang member who is now a VP at Goldman Sachs. Children of the City takes a holistic approach focused on both home supports and academics. The staff has learned that when kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, they’re more likely to focus on reading skills, college entrance exams and career options.
As we’ve expected all along, our family gained much more from this service project than we actually contributed. Yes, we helped stuff the invitations for the organization’s upcoming fundraiser, we participated in the afterschool program and we delivered food donations to local families, but those activities were a drop in the bucket compared to what we learned. We got a very up-close-and-personal perspective on poverty as we talked with the young people involved in the program, their parents and the staff.
One young woman, Rosa, enrolled with Children of the City in 5th grade. At the time she was in the special behavioral program at her school due to the issues she was creating in the classroom. “I was 12 years old and I didn’t know how to read, so whenever the teacher called on me to do it I would throw a fit. I was acting out because I didn’t want to have to read out loud and let people know I couldn’t do it.” Her tutor at Children of the City quickly identified Rosa’s illiteracy and created an intensive summer reading program for her. By the time her 6th grade year began, she was reading almost at grade level, the behavior issues disappeared and she started thriving in school.
Our time at Children of the City was a very eye opening experience, in both good ways and bad. We saw a spirit of community support where parents are working to give their children a better life through access to educational supports and quality childcare. We also saw the constant hurdles this population continues to face, even from the very systems in place to help them. Both program staff and program participants expressed concerns with the unintended consequences of our country’s welfare system. “I’m working really hard to do something different than what other girls I’m in school with are doing,” said a young woman who was once enrolled in the program and now serves as a volunteer. “They want to get their own place so they go and have a baby so they can get the money to do it. It’s really sad.”
The other eye-opener was the reaction of our daughters. They made some observations that, as a parent, felt a little uncomfortable at first. Like when Liv commented on how everyone there seemed to have skin that was darker than ours or when Alison asked why the people we were taking food to couldn’t go to the grocery store themselves. It’s an awkward conversation, and in the past when these comments come up I’ve either glossed over them or used it as an opportunity to lecture them on equality. This time I just asked, “Why do you think that is?” The answers I got were pretty profound, and the girls probably learned a lot more by talking through it in their own words than having my grown-up version thrown at them.
By the end of the day, Em, Liv and Ali were running around the front yard of the center playing and laughing with the children in the afterschool program. Income level meant nothing. Where they lived or what their parents did for a living meant nothing. They were just kids being kids. Afterwards when I asked Liv what she learned about the children she met that day, she shrugged and said “They’re just normal kids like me, Mom.”