The Children's Aid Blog

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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Our Frontline Hero

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When New York Nonprofit Media asked organizations to nominate their frontline heroes, the most difficult task was figuring out how to select one person from a staff that is stocked with heroes.

We nominated several people and NYNM chose Carmen Gonzalez, our Early Head Start education director at P.S. 5 in Washington Heights. They held a celebratory breakfast this week, and she was joined by members of her family and the Children’s Aid family as well.

Carmen first came to Children’s Aid in 1994 when she joined "Padres Presentes y Futuro” (Parents of the Present and Future) at P.S. 5 Ellen Lurie in Washington Heights. It soon became apparent this young parent possessed an array of skills. We hired her to teach parents how to use items in their home and daily life to bond and play with their children. In 1996, we received a federal Early Head Start grant, largely based on the success of Padres Presentes y Futuro. We immediately asked her to be a home-based teacher.

Over the next two decades, Carmen worked with thousands of children and their parents, making sure these kids would meet all their developmental challenges and are ready for kindergarten on the first day. Last year, we promoted her yet again to her current.

During her tenure at Children's Aid, Carmen has earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a master’s in early childhood special education. She has Doula certification and participated in numerous births with Early Head Start parents.  She is licensed in infant massage. Both of her children, Head Start participants from the 1990s, have graduated from college. Whether it’s her kids or the many she has worked with, she has dedicated her life to making sure they succeed and thrive.

Congratulations to Carmen. And thank you for making Children’s Aid excellent.

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Our Youth of the Year

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Children’s Aid is extremely proud of its partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of America. Together, we offer programs at four sites that build well-being for our kids in so many different ways. Put another way, we collaborate on challenging our youth to reach new heights.

Perhaps the most towering test is when we ask our teens to apply to be the Youth of the Year. The competition began just weeks ago when four teens from Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, Hope Leadership Academy, and Opportunity Charter School convened at West 125th Street to vie for the title of Children’s Aid Youth of the Year. They had already put in hours of work, writing essays, filling out an intensive application, securing letters of recommendation, and practicing a three-minute speech.

There are two constants from year to year: All the teens are exceptionally driven and accomplished, and the judges have a difficult time making a decision. This year wasn’t any different. In the end, they chose Naseem Haamid, a junior at Fannie Lou, to represent Children’s Aid in the state competition in late May. He’s got several weeks to continue prepping for what will be a busy weekend of interviews and public speaking, but Naseem has what it takes to win the title and go to nationals. Let’s all wish him luck. 

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Your Annual Dose of Inspiration

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This blog post has unofficially but quickly become one of the most anticipated among the many that appear annually throughout the Children’s Aid calendar.

Last year saw the launch of the Garden of Dreams Inspire Scholarships. They are among the most desirable in the city for one simple reason: their generosity. Each winner receives a $10,000 annual reward renewable through four years of college. That’s right, a total potential value of $40,000.

The Garden of Dreams Foundation aims to change the lives of young people with these scholarships, and seeks out young people who are excellent students and community leaders despite facing some difficult obstacles.

For the second year in a row, we are thrilled to announce that Children’s Aid youth won FOUR of the 12 scholarships, the most of any organization. Congratulations to each of our talented scholarship winners:

Bempa Ashia has been a member of the CAS-Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program since its inception at Bronx Prep Charter in August 2008. Since then, he has been an exemplary scholar in terms of his performance, behavior, and achievements. Bempa is a member of the National Honor Society and the National Spanish Honor Society, and served as the class student government representative in grades 9-10. He is also an active participant in Bronx Prep’s nationally recognized speech and debate team and has competed in tournaments across the country. In his community he has worked as a childcare worker at the Mother Hale Learning Center for the past two summers. He is a member of the Open Hydrant Theatre Company, a community theatre program that performs shows for residents in distressed Bronx neighborhoods. He has accomplished all of this despite his father’s untimely death several years ago. Bempa has already received acceptance letters from nine competitive universities and is in the process of choosing.

Cesay Camara joined the Hope Leadership Academy about four years ago, and her leadership skills quickly became apparent. She has facilitated workshops on topics such as violence prevention, victimization, healthy relationships, cultural diversity, and bullying during youth retreats and special events. She has participated in a number of Children’s Aid programs, including JPMorgan Project LIVE, MSG Classroom, the Teen ACTION program, and the Boys & Girls Club of America Keystone Club. Her high school peers elected her president of the Muslim Students Association. She carries a 96 average in her classes and last summer completed an intensive pre-college program at Brown University.

Joanna Fuentes will be valedictorian of her class this year at the Theatre Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, and has proved to be exceptional across disciplines—in academics, athletics, and artistic achievement. Joanna has been a member of the Children's Aid Society Chorus for two years. Through the chorus she has performed as a soloist at Radio City Music Hall and sang a featured role in the musical "The Odyssey" with the Public Theater which she performed for more than 6,000 people this past September. Joanna is also on her school's varsity softball team, and has maintained a perfect 4.0 average throughout high school. Joanna plans to double major in pre-law and music at college, and will be making her final college decision soon.

Ngawang Tseten came to the United States for medical treatment through the efforts of the Global Medical Relief Fund, a Staten Island nonprofit dedicated to helping children to get necessary treatments for profound physical problems. Ngawang was a member of the ethnic Tibetan exile community living in India when he suffered severe electrical burns to his upper body while trying to free a kite from a tree with a metal pole and touched some high-tension overhead wires. His arms were so severely injured that they had to be amputated, but no part of his spirit and zest for life was lost that day. 

Ngawang, known as Charlie to his friends, enrolled at Curtis High School in 2012 as a Freshman. He has devoted himself to his studies and will graduate in June with a New York State Regents Diploma. In addition to his studies, Charlie tried out for the soccer team and spent a year on the wrestling squad. His real passion, though, is music. He sings with the Curtis High School Jazz Warriors in addition to playing with friends in the Dream Band, a group of other Curtis students and alumni with a robust playlist of jazz, rock, and pop. Ngawang will pursue a college degree in business so he can fulfill his  most urgent desire is to earn enough to support himself and his mother live so she will never have to work hard again.  



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Teens Make an Impact through Service

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Youth at the East Harlem Center Keystone Club have been building an impressive name for themselves. Last year club members tackled the challenge of improving police and youth relations in their community. They decided to host #KnowYourRightsNYC, a forum to educate their peers about their civic rights. The project, part of the Boys and Girls Club Million Members Million Hours service initiative, directly addressed a serious issue in their neighborhood that the members were passionate about.

They were recognized regionally by the BGCA for their efforts. And now more recently, they have also received national praise from the BGCA Keystone Program, winning the first place Community Service Award and $1,250 from the organization.

This comes on the heels of a Boys and Girls Club Million Members Million Hours $24,000 grant to extend the East Harlem Center club's reach. That’s right, they will continue to provide service to their community, while also motivating their peers to participate. They plan to engage 1,600 more teens in service and are well on their way to reaching their goal.

“Teenagers who give back to their community tend to go through life making healthier lifestyle decisions,” said Midge Caparosa, the arts and leadership coordinator, who heads the Keystone program at the East Harlem Center.

She and a chaperone from the center accompanied seven teens from the club to the National Keystone conference in Dallas. There they joined 2,000 of their peers in attending workshops on public speaking, self-branding, and even managed to squeeze in a college fair. In the midst of all their work, the recognition provided a well-deserved opportunity for networking and fun.

We are incredibly proud of the East Harlem Keystone Club and are excited to see how they will continue to serve as great community leaders.


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Garden of Dreams Talent Show Puts Kids Center Stage

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Through a partnership with the Garden of Dream’s Foundation, students from across Children’s Aid received the chance of a lifetime: they got to perform in front of a live audience at Radio City Music Hall. As part of the annual Garden of Dreams Talent Show, three student acts showed off their talents that blew those in attendance away.

Stephen and Tavan from the Bronx performed “Jackie and Me,” a skit that celebrated the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Chanela and Victoria, two vocalists from the Children’s Aid chorus performed a stunning Adele mashup. And high school students from Curtis High School in Staten Island, Ngwang and Ahmend, performed an awe-inspiring duet of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” by Elton John and George Michael.

 “Today” did a segment in advance of the talent show featuring a great interview with Ngawang and Ahmed. Be sure to watch to see how the Garden of Dreams Foundation is giving our students opportunities to achieve their full potential.


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