The Children's Aid Blog

A Night to Remember

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CAS/AileyCamp's 20/20 Illumination

Is there anything more beautiful than children expressing themselves through art? Not in my book.  On August 12, 80 of the most beautiful children imaginable performed a powerful tribute to Judith Jamison, the outgoing artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, through dance, music, poetry, and visual arts at the culminating performance of the Children’s Aid Society Ailey Camp.

Art programs help to nurture children and provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of a creative art form.  This performance marked the 20th year of the partnership between The Children’s Aid Society and the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation that brings CAS/AileyCamp to children in Washington Heights and Staten Island. Dedicated to helping young people develop self-discipline of the body and mind, CAS/AileyCamp is but one example of Children’s Aid’s commitment to bringing high quality arts programming to the children we serve.

It is amazing to watch how much children can grow in six weeks.  Most of the students in the camp had no dance training when camp began, which made the power of their performance all the more impressive. The grace and honor these dancers displayed in “Our Prayers,” a dance that directly honored Ms. Jamison, brought tears to many in the audience. And the exuberance and energy of “Lighting Up Their Spirits,” in which West African dances came to life, made the children’s joy contagious.  Performing before an audience of peers, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins is an unforgettable experience, and these AileyCamp-ers let us know how much the evening meant to them.

Ms. Jamison, seated in the front row of Columbia University’s Miller Theater, was swept up by the beauty and emotion of it all, responding to the children’s grace and harmony and honoring them with her applause and gestures of praise.  CAS/AileyCamp’s “20/20 Illumination” was an evening memorable for the audience, but unforgettable for the young dancers.

Richard R. Buery, Jr.

President and CEO
The Children’s Aid Society
New York City

Freshness Grows in the Bronx

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What would you expect teens to do on a warm summer afternoon? Hit the pool or beach? Sure! Spend time in a mall or movie theater to cool off? Why not? Well, on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010, teens from the Bronx Family Center brought fresh fruits and vegetables to their South Bronx neighborhood. The Youthmarket, the first to be held at this center, was operated by youth from the Foster Care program. The teens worked hard together to meet the demands from dozens of children who visited the Youthmarket from surrounding Children’s Aid Society early childhood programs and summer camps. Many kids were willing to purchase carrots and corn, which pleasantly surprised me, though the fruits remained popular throughout the day and sold out quickly.

Also present were the Next Generation Caterers, who demonstrated how to make zucchini pancakes, poached peaches with blueberries and fresh salsa. The Next Generation Caterers specialize in creating healthful, innovative cuisine made from fresh and seasonal ingredients. All the produce used in their cooking came from the Youthmarket. Along with preparing mouthwatering recipes, the caterers were excellent teachers for the younger children who were not as willing to try something “new.”

On hand to lend his support, and to organize a few carrots and potatoes, was Michael Wagner, Director of Permanency for Adoption and Foster Care at the Bronx Family Center.  

Watch this video to hear from him!

Photos Courtesy of Giany Mejia.

Fun and Fitness in Harlem

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The Children’s Aid Society’s first ever Fitness Jamboree was an amazing display of how the agency has taken on the challenge to promote healthy lifestyles among the children and families that we serve. Children living in poor neighborhoods in Harlem experience obesity and its related poor health effects at distressingly high rates. They are also faced with countless obstacles that hinder healthy life choices. For example, there are very few safe, well-lighted parks and recreation areas; families lack ready access to fresh produce and are surrounded by inexpensive and unhealthy fast food; and city budget cutbacks have resulted in inadequate physical education in public schools.

The rain held off on Saturday, June 12th for our Fitness Jamboree, spearheaded by Coach Kelsey Stevens, Director of Fitness & Recreation and Scott McLeod, Director of Volunteer Services. The event was hosted and sponsored by The Children’s Aid Society’s Associates Council and enhanced by an energetic group of NY Cares Volunteers. The goal of the event was to foster enthusiasm for physical activity and provide a safe and welcoming environment for Children’s Aid youth and families to get active and try new and different fitness-based activities. Approximately 150 youth and parents from six Children’s Aid sites, Dunlevy Milbank, Frederick Douglass Center, East Harlem Center, Hope Leadership Academy, P.S. 50 and C.I.S. 166, gathered at the Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem. Activities included martial arts, yoga, flag football, ballroom dancing, Pilates and more.  The different activities were taught by volunteer fitness professionals and Children’s Aid staff. Each activity was inclusive to participants from any Children’s Aid center and the kids enjoyed the camaraderie of playing on a team together with new friends. The Fitness Jamboree was an incredible celebration of fitness and fun! At the end of all of the excitement, each participant was awarded a medal to commemorate this special day.

Student-Run New York City Markets Honored by The Boys & Girls Clubs of America

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The Children’s Aid Society recently received a national Boys & Girls Clubs of America Honor Award for Program Excellence in Health and Life Skills for its Youthmarkets, operated in partnership with GrowNYC. These youth-run farm stands were created to address the acute lack of fruits and vegetables by bringing fresh, local and healthful produce directly into schools for students and families. The Award was presented at the Boys & Girls Clubs 104th National Conference held recently in New York, N.Y. MetLife Foundation sponsors the annual awards program. The Children’s Aid Society received a $3,500 cash award in recognition of its outstanding achievement.

The Honor Award for Program Excellence in Health and Life Skills recognizes the program that helps young people develop the capacity to engage in positive behaviors that nurture their own well-being, help them set personal goals and live successfully as self-sufficient adults.

The students who help organize The Children’s Aid Society Youthmarkets sell the produce, do cooking demonstrations and tastings and distribute recipes to families to take home, all in partnership with GrowNYC. The Youthmarkets happen in three Children’s Aid community schools in the Bronx and Washington Heights.

Volunteers Expand Urban Garden in the Bronx

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The Urban Garden at I.S. 98 Herman Ridder, a Children’s Aid Community School in the Bronx, received a face-lift on Tuesday, August 3rd thanks to the employees at Jana Partners, LLC. The generous volunteers donated their time and supplies to build ten garden planter boxes for the children to grow their own fruits and vegetables as part of their Cooking and Nutrition program. The project also included the priming of a section of the building so that the children can paint a mural in the near future. Thanks to these wonderful volunteers, the I.S. 98 Urban Garden will serve as a tool for children to learn how to grow their own produce, promote a healthy lifestyle by eating nutritiously and encouraging healthy habits that will stay with them throughout their lifetime. Charlie Penner, of Jana Partners shared that his team had been searching for a way to give back to the children of New York City. “We are interested in kids and their families eating more healthy, and this really struck a chord with us.”

This project was organized by Children’s Aid’s Volunteer Services department, which is committed to ensuring that volunteers have a rewarding experience during their time with us. Volunteer Services provide Children’s Aid programs and staff with access to dedicated individuals looking to donate a portion of their time working directly with and on behalf of our children and families. Currently, the Office of Volunteer Services supports over forty programs and events involving volunteers.

Can't Stop…You May Be Addicted

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Have you ever wondered why it is that when you turn the corner, cravings kick in instantly for the local fast food spot? Or why a day at the mall is not complete without the usual snacks? Does 3:00 pm mean a quick run to your favorite frozen yogurt supplier?

According to Dr. David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” this behavior can’t be simply attributed to bad eating habits. It’s a powerful addiction, and you might need rehab. Dr. Kessler says that the food industry, much like the tobacco industry, is intentionally designing products high in fat, salt and sugar to get consumers addicted. He estimates that about 70 million Americans struggle with “hyper-eating”.

Through his own observations and studies, Dr. Kessler has found that foods containing fat, salt and sugar stimulate the release of Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in alcohol, drug and cigarette addiction. He explains that over time Dopamine pathways light up at even the slightest food “cue” like a time of day or the neighborhood you are in, regardless if you are hungry. As a result, portion control is almost impossible due to the fact that you are no longer eating for nourishment but for stimulation.

What can we do to break the cycle? Dr. Kessler says that what is needed is a “perceptual shift”. The way we look at food and respond to the urges need to be changed in order to rewire our brains and break the addictive cycle.

Stefania Patinella, Director of Food & Nutrition Programs at The Children’s Aid Society says: “Among the solutions Dr. Kessler offers is a return to eating “real food”—food that is whole and fresh, that is not processed or pumped with sugars and fats, and that is free from misleading advertising. At Children’s Aid, our Go! Healthy programs aim to help children and families discover and develop a love for real, healthy foods. Our cooking classes make healthy foods a cause for family celebration, and our nutrition discussions help children uncover the advertising tricks of the food industry so they can become smart and conscious consumers. Dr. Kessler explains how rewiring our brains and freeing ourselves from food addiction is no easy task, a lesson many American adults know well as they struggle their whole lives with overeating. Better, we think, to encourage healthy habits from the very beginning of children’s lives.”

Don't Let Children Slide This Summer

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Out of all the things low-income parents worry about during the summer months - family vacations, the pool and activities at home - this might very well be at the bottom of their list or not on there at all! It's called the "summer slide," and it’s what could happen to children during the summer while their minds are “inactive,” at least compared to how “active” they would have been during the school year. Approximately two months worth of knowledge is lost during the summer according to the National Summer Learning Association. A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University shows that during the school year, regardless of economic status, students made similar progress but come summer break, those in disadvantaged financial situations fell behind while the more privileged students either progressed or held steady.

A cover story in the August 2nd issue of Time magazine addresses this issue in the article “The Case Against Summer Vacation” written by David Von Drehle. Von Drehle says that more privileged children have access to higher quality activities during the summer like museums and enrichment classes that keep their minds sharp. The story highlights some of the organizations across the country that have taken steps to further engage students during the summer, such as the Hawthorne Community Center in West Indianapolis where elementary age students are learning pre-algebra and exploring plant science. Ellen Galinsky, posted for the Huffington Post, “7 Ways to Help Your Children Thrive During Summer,” tips parents can use to keep their children engaged while out of school. Among her suggestions is helping children pursue their own interests and showing your children by example that you enjoy learning as well.

At The Children’s Aid Society, summer break is not only spent at theme parks or the beach, but in activities to expand one’s mind and exercise the cerebral muscles. Children's Aid summer camps not only help keep children safe, but introduce fun, engaging and intellectually stimulating activities that counter "summer slide," when students lose educational ground during summer vacation. Gwendolyn Taylor, Director of the Bridge Program at the Dunlevy Milbank Center has experience in engaging the toughest of age groups, “tweens,” during the summer break. For more of Gwen’s advice, watch this video!

Two Children’s Aid Community Schools Receive Excellence in School Wellness Awards!

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P.S. 152 in Washington Heights and C.S. 61 in the Bronx, both Children’s Aid community schools, for receiving Excellence in School Wellness Awards from the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health! P.S. 152 was awarded silver for Manhattan and C.S. 61 a bronze for the Bronx.

The Awards recognize that schools and their partners are working to create healthy school environments as a means to prevent childhood obesity and improve academic achievement. Applications for the award were sent out to 272 elementary schools in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Forty schools met one of the top tier Excellence in School Wellness Award levels: 15 schools were awarded gold, 10 silver, and nine bronze. Six schools will receive Honorable Mention.

The Children’s Aid Society’s Go!Healthy initiative is empowering our community schools throughout Washington Heights and the South Bronx to create healthy environments for students” says Stefania Patinella, Director of Food & Nutrition Programs at The Children’s Aid Society. “Our multi-faceted approach includes Go!Chefs cooking and nutrition programs for students of all ages, school gardening programs, fitness and yoga programs, and Youthmarkets (student-run greenmarkets). We also provide health and wellness training for staff so they can be positive role models for children. “

Bishops and Knights in After-School

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Twice a week, battles occur at P.S. 5 Ellen Lurie Community School-- battles on the black and white chessboards in Ms. Feng’s room where each student vies to dethrone his or her opponent’s king during Chess Club. Each Tuesday and Thursday, groups of students spend 45 minutes of afterschool time in Chess Club. The Club’s curriculum is varied for each group’s level of competency and cognitive ability. For example, kindergarteners focus on learning the different pieces, reading storybooks about chess amd playing human chess by standing up and moving around via the square floor tiles. Older students in the 4th and 5th grade focus on strategy and calculating risk during heated matches. 

Each match of chess begins and ends with a handshake, a gesture of sportsmanship and respect. Students deftly maneuver pawns, rooks, bishops and knights; they memorize the intricate patterns in which each piece is able to move. Students learn to carefully consider their moves in a safe and relaxing environment—kids are able to think, play and unwind from the academic day during this activity. Chess proves to be more than just a game. Each semester, students display measurable increases in skills and proficiencies including: thinking ahead, math skills, visual and spacial awareness and improved self confidence. The Chess Club is a prized part of the afterschool clubs at PS 5.

Mary Newcomb
Development Assistant
The Children's Aid Society

Food + TV = Bad Eating Habits?

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In the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President, released in May 2010, it is clear that the challenge America faces in fighting childhood obesity is daunting. This national epidemic not only has life altering and threatening consequences but is also extremely costly. One in three children is obese and direct medical costs due to childhood obesity are estimated to be at $3 billion a year. The plea to the President is hopeful that because some contributing factors to childhood obesity are apparent, there can be regulations to possibly reverse these growing numbers.

One of the many factors contributing to childhood obesity is the increase in time spent watching television and surfing the internet. Not only does this decrease a child’s physical activity but children are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy lifestyle choices and food products. Marketers know that children and adolescents are an important demographic to advertise to because they will be the future adult consumers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated that in 2006 more than $1.6 billion was spent to promote food and beverage products to children and adolescents. One popular marketing technique used in advertising is the use of characters from popular television programming. In a research study conducted by Sesame Workshop in 2005, it is shown that the use of popular characters has a strong influence on the food choices little ones will make regardless of it being healthy.

In response to a growing concern by the public, the Council of Better Business Bureaus created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). The initiative is intended to regulate food and beverage advertising. One of the conditions set by the CFBAI for companies is that 50% of their advertising must promote healthier lifestyle choices. And what about those fuzzy and adorable characters that our youngsters follow so much? If they are not promoting “healthier-for-you” products that meet the criteria set by the CFBAI, their air time must be reduced. Though a step in the right direction, the efforts of the CFBAI have been criticized for failing to apply to all forms of advertising, including displays near check-out counters. In 2009, Children Now commissioned a study to analyze the efficiency of the CFBAI and also found that the use of popular characters in advertisements for unhealthy products had nearly doubled.

Clearly, more work is needed and stronger standards must be set. Congress formed the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) in 2009. This group developed tentative standards in December of 2009 and is working on publishing set standards in the Federal Register, the official daily publication of proposed new rules and regulations, in the near future. Federal government guidance and regulation will be necessary to turn the corner in the fight against childhood obesity. Other recommendations by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity include:

  • Extending the self-regulatory initiative to cover all forms of marketing including point of purchase displays
  • Limit the use of popular characters to products that are truly healthy
  • Both food and media industries should adopt a uniform set of standards for marketing to children

Additional comments by Kathy de Meij, Director of Marketing, The Children’s Aid Society: “While we’re pleased there’s movement to protect our children’s health, the tightening of regulations should only be the first step. The Task Force should then pursue a total ban on junk food advertising to children (similar to the ban on advertising tobacco products). The ban should define junk foods in a very rigid manner to include all foods high in sugar, fat and salt, including products such as high-sugar cereals that falsely market themselves as healthy by including synthetic vitamins. We also need a comprehensive national outreach program that moves public opinion and children’s behavior permanently to healthy eating for long term health, similar to the efforts undertaken to use seat belts for safety. “