The Children's Aid Blog

Showing Great Appreciation for Our Educators - Part Four

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Lester Feuerstein’s personal mission is to make sure his students stand a chance. As an after-school coordinator at I.S. 61 on the north shore of Staten Island, he aims to provide kids with well-rounded experiences that engage them academically, physically, and socially.

Lester has worked at Children’s Aid for 13 years, but the flesh of his career as an educator comes from the 25 years he spent as a special needs teacher and supervisor. He found that in each role, advocating for a student’s well-being was front and center.

“You are always fighting for kids to be part of what is going on in the school,” he said.

As a former softball coach and basketball referee, Lester is a believer in the benefits of athletics but he knows that they have to be balanced out with academics. He always emphasizes that with his students and their parents throughout the school year. He hopes that his middle schoolers will be intrigued by programs like filmmaking or robotics that will provide them with added opportunities for personal growth.

“If we can get a couple of kids to try new things, well maybe they will find something they really enjoy,” he said.

Lester and his after-school team at I.S. 61 also make concentrated efforts to prepare students for high school. They work with seventh graders to introduce them to the specialized high school entrance test. After-school test prep continues through the eighth grade, until students take the exam in November. Lester holds high expectations for kids in his programs because he knows what they are capable of accomplishing.

“The goal is to see kids achieving the highest level of education possible and achieving careers,” said Lester. “Our students can rise to the occasion.”

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National Foster Care Month - Part Two

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Mariama Kora’s life changed when she watched a mother get frustrated with an emotionally upset boy and then ignored him.

“Why are you mad, and why are you not attending to him?” she thought at the time. Mariama found out that the boy was in the foster care system, and she knew she could do better.

Mariama is originally from Gambia, immigrating to the U.S. in 1994. And she has always had a big heart. She has given birth to three children, one of whom was born with multiple congenital abnormalities. The doctors said he would be a “vegetable,” but Mariama refused to accept that. Her boy continues to exceed doctors’ expectations.

At a certain point, she realized there might be another boy who needs a good home because of similar medical problems, and that he could be a friend to her son. “I’m very sympathetic to everyone I see,” said Mariama. “I want to make a difference.”

After getting trained by Children’s Aid, she soon received a call about a 9-year-old boy in our medical foster care program who needed a home for two weeks while his foster mother went on vacation. At the end of the two weeks, the boy who would become her adopted son refused to leave. “He wrapped his entire body around my legs,” said Mariama. “At that point, he had so many difficulties that they had to restrain him to calm down. Today, he’s doing perfect.”

She has brought more kids into her Mount Vernon home. She’s currently fostering a 6-year-old and three 4-year-olds. “If I can lift up one child, then maybe I’m making a difference,” she said. 

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Children’s Aid Celebrates Bronx Week

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Last week, we hosted our annual Bronx Week event at the Children’s Aid Bronx Family Center. Organized by our Office of Public Policy in collaboration with our Child Welfare and Family Services Division, the event took place during the borough’s official Bronx Week. The event marks the 16th year Children’s Aid services have operated in the borough.

Activities included face painting, a bouncy house, and raffles that were complimented by sweet and healthy treats. A representative from Marcos Crespo’s office also stopped by to help raffle off some prizes to children in attendance.  Our Bronx Week event was a fun way to engage our families and to let the community know about our range of services present in the area. Children’s Aid operates 12 community schools in the borough, offers early childhood classes, runs a youth center and health clinic, has foster care and adoption services, and a variety of nutrition programs. 

Click here to view our Bronx Week photo gallery.

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Showing Great Appreciation for Our Educators - Part Three

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As a program coordinator and educator for our food justice after-school programs, Natalie Greaves-Peters, works diligently to empower middle and high school students to explore how food and social justice intersect in their communities.

Her work starts with building understanding around access to healthy foods, labor rights, and environmental sustainability. Some topics are a bit sophisticated for middle schoolers—and even high schoolers—to grasp, but Natalie finds that “planting the seeds early on” helps them stick.

It also helps her students make healthier decisions around the foods they eat, a key goal that Natalie and the Go!Healthy program have for their participants.

“A lot their results in their day-to-day life comes from what they put in their bodies,” she said, talking about academics and attendance. “Educating kids about food ultimately helps them perform better in school.”

After students have assessed food systems in their own neighborhood, they come up with projects that draw attention to the food injustice present in their communities.

 “These kids are making connections between what they learn in the program and real life,” said Natalie. “Seeing that understanding grow in front of your eyes—it’s a really rewarding experience.”

Most recently, she has connected middle schoolers in her afterschool program at the Children’s Aid East Harlem Center to Lunch 4 Learning, a city-wide campaign advocating for universal free school lunch. Her students have tweeted and emailed the mayor about the issue, and two of her students will go before the City Council Finance Committee to make their case this month.

“We are teaching them communication skills, presentation skills, and debate skills,” said Natalie. “I try to foster a very open space for learning. I want my students to be curious and ask questions.”

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The Power in Prevention

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According to the Center for Disease Control, teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low in the United States. Educating teens on safe sexual practices, sexually transmitted infections, and the importance of abstinence are key ways to reducing teen pregnancy. And we have found that when that information comes from other teens, it is all the more effective.

In honor of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, the Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (CAPP) program’s Just Ask Me (JAM) teen peer educators hosted a “Prevention is Power” event at the Next Generation Center. More than 40 young people from the surrounding South Bronx community attended the annual event, where JAM peers quizzed and educated attendees on topics such as contraception and the realities of young parenthood. The evening included food, raffles, and dancing—all in a safe setting for the teens in attendance to have fun.

Each year our teenage educators, with the support of the CAPP staff, leave a positive impression on their peers. And every year, more teens are realizing that their power is in their choices.

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Showing Great Appreciation for Our Educators - Part Two

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Jen Ocampo is tasked with an important part of building students’ wellbeing. As a Carrera Family Life and Sexuality Education educator, she navigates 9th and 11thgraders through some of the important topics they come across in their teen and young adult years like reproductive health, contraception, and STIs.

“We get to cover a lot of stuff that we don’t get to talk about anywhere else,” she said.

Jen and her students discuss these topics both in a classroom setting and in one-on-one counseling. In both spaces, she finds that her students shy away from conversations around sexual health. However, Jen uses their apprehension to generate transparent and honest dialogue around healthy behaviors. She feels rewarded when she sees her students continue these conversations outside of her classroom.

“It’s important to consider the emotional part of education,” said Jen. “My work focuses on how kids feel because that’s where change starts.”

The Carrera program’s long-term approach also provides Jen with the unique opportunity to see her students grow over the years. In her seven years of working with Carrera,  she has seen some of her students through the beginnings of their first romantic relationships.  She constantly reminds them that discussing their “sexuality is natural and normal.”

“How they talk about friendships, how they talk with adults—those are all parts of sexuality,” she said. In broadening her students’ understanding, Jen’s end-goal is to help them all develop healthy interactions across their lifespan.

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National Foster Care Month

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There probably aren’t a lot of people who experience the foster care system and call it a blessing in disguise.

Then again, there aren’t many people like Krystine Dykes. She’s 28 and she basically rescued two younger brothers far-from-ideal foster care situations to give them a home they could trust and feel safe in. It was also a home she filled with love.

May is National Foster Care Month, and at Children’s Aid we’re shining a light on some of the people who have opened their homes and arms to young people who desperately need a source of stability. We couldn’t start with anyone better than Krystine.

She was 8 when she went into the foster care system. And she would eventually have seven siblings, all of whom eventually landed in foster care. There large number would make it extremely difficult to keep them together.

She saw it all during her long stretch in care--foster homes, emergency shelters, group homes. “I’ve been through the change of foster care itself,” said Krystine, referring to how much reform child welfare has been through in recent decades.

Krystine left foster care when she was 22, having become estranged from her mother and having lost touch with some of her siblings. So she was surprised to find out, when she was 25, that two of her brothers still in the system were in danger of being separated. This situation was especially problematic because both brothers have disabilities; the younger, Marc, has cerebral palsy.

Krystine found out that the same lawyer that represented her when she was in foster care was overseeing her brothers’ cases. She called. “I want my brothers,” she said. “Whatever I have to do to get them, I’m going to do it.”

Soon, Marc and De’Anthony were getting used to living with the big sister they really didn’t know so well. It wasn’t easy for any of them. “There are times where I think, ‘I can’t do this,’” said Krystine. “Then Marc will come give me a hug or a kiss for no reason.”

She says the boys are such a big part of who she is now. De’Anthony is 22 and was already on his way to independence when he came to live with Krystine. Today he has a job working for a document retention and destruction firm and lives in an assisted living facility in Staten Island with several other men. Krystine and Marc visit every weekend. Marc is in high school and doing well. They have had an impact on Krystine, too, who works as a bartender at night but would like to return to the college education she started and become a social worker.

“I’m a strong woman,” she said. “I have a lot more patience than I would have if it weren’t for them. I’m a lot more calm in what I allow to bother me these.”

And she wants to foster more teenagers, perhaps girls. “Kids in foster care are scared to be themselves because they get bounced around,” said Krystine. “They’re so guarded. But they have so much potential so much talent. I would like to take a lot of girls under my wings.”

She’s an active advocate for kids in foster care as well as a recruiter of new parents. “Take a chance,” she said. “Let them know that this is not it. Just being a teen in foster care, I encourage parents to include them and make them feel on the own. Make us feel like you’re part of the family.”

 

A Champion for Children, a Champion for the Bronx

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There are few jobs as tough as those working in child welfare. And too often, the dedicated people that work in that field do so without thanks or recognition.

We’re glad, then, that Ruben Diaz, Jr., the Bronx borough president, collaborates with the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies to recognize and encourage outstanding Bronx-based child welfare agencies, caseworkers, supervisors, foster parents, adoptive parents, and staff at the Administration for Children’s Services whose work and dedication reach above and beyond when it comes to supporting and protecting children of the Bronx.

And we are thrilled that they honored Denese Kahn from Children’s Aid with the Bronx Cares Award. She joined Children’s Aid in 2006.  Since that time, Denese has worked tirelessly to provide children and families with immediate services to address safety and risk factors, de-escalate crises, improve family functioning, and increase youth school attendance and academic performance.

Thank you, Denese, for being such a shining example of the work we do at Children’s Aid and for always putting the health and well-being of the kids in your care first. You are extraordinary.

 

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Showing Great Appreciation for Our Educators

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May is National Teacher Appreciation Month, and we would like to use this opportunity to thank our educators. Every week in May, we will shine a light on an educator from a different corner of our organization, who is working in a critical capacity to help our students achieve their full potential. This week we shine the spotlight on Jessica Roman.

As an assistant teacher in an early childhood classroom, Jessica helps kids ages 2-4 get ready for kindergarten. This work develops toddlers’ motor skills and provides early classroom socialization. For Jessica, the social-emotional component is key to her students’ success.

“There are tools that we instill in our kids. If they are upset, I ask them to use their words,” she said. “I will say, ‘I’m feeling frustrated.’ ‘I think I need to take a deep breathe’ or ‘I need to take a walk.’” She teaches her students by leading through example.

“Teaching is giving kids the power and confidence to express themselves,” she said. “You have to remind them we are all continuously growing.”

Jessica is giving back the support she received from her kindergarten teacher, whose name she still knows to this day. She remembers not wanting to part with her mother on the first day of kindergarten, but her teacher eased her anxiety.

“She provided a sense of comfort,” said Jessica. “The next day I was ready to go back to school.” That solidified things early on for her. In pursuing a career as an early childhood educator, she wanted to provide a similar sense of ease and support.

“I want to have that lasting impression on my kids. I want them to look back and think preschool was fun.”

Jessica and her team in the purple classroom at Milbank work to make sure their students have fun, while also learning about the world around them. Through a science curriculum, they engage their students with activities like butterfly observations, which students track in their science journals. It’s not only a treat for her students, but for Jessica as well.

“Having a great foundation, great coworkers and supervisors help us tremendously. I come in positive. I come in happy. That helps me do my job well.”

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Elite Hoopsters in Harlem

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At several of our centers in Harlem, we have thriving basketball programs that do far more than develop a good crossover dribble. The exercise they provide is fundamental to good health, but kids also reap a host of other intangible benefits.

This was the eighth year that Children’s Aid has put together a basketball showcase for purposes of celebrating talent as well as the other benefits a basketball life offers. Clyde Weems started the event in conjunction with the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services to put the focus on a positive alternative to drugs and a healthy lifestyle. This year, Asari Offiong led the efforts to host a fantastic night.

“These programs are always going to be about you and your growth and development and not the basketball,” said Casper Lassiter, speaking to all of the kids before tip-off.

A ballgame isn’t a ballgame without the national anthem, and on this night former Milbank alum and aspiring singer-songwriter Tyrik Ballard nailed it. Local advocate Russell Shuler talked about the SAT test and what teens needed to do to prepare.

We were honored to have two incredibly special guests: New York Knick legend Larry Johnson and former All-Star for the New York Liberty, Kym Hampton. They gave out awards to some of the players who have been in our program for a long time.

“We want this to be an event that all of our young people look forward to and will be another step in guiding them in the right direction,” said Asari.

It was all that and more.

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