Children’s Aid mentors helped this honor student get past financial and cultural hurdles and into the college and career of her dreams.
Growing up, Erica Quezada knew she wanted more out of life than the poverty, crime and drugs she saw each day in her Washington Heights neighborhood. But college, especially one far from home, seemed more of a fantasy than a realistic goal. She was an honor student at Cabrini High School, but her Dominican parents did not approve of a young woman moving away from home. And if she couldn’t even scrounge up the money to pay for college applications, how would she ever pay tuition?
These thoughts consumed her each day as she headed to I.S. 218, a Children’s Aid Community School where Erica volunteered as a tutor. Seeing her long face, former Children’s Aid CEO C. Warren (Pete) Moses, asked Erica what was wrong. Within two days, Erica had a check to cover her applications to Vassar College and Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities.
“When you grow up in an environment like I did, it’s hard to see beyond the life experiences that you’re exposed to,” Erica says. “But at Children’s Aid, I met people who said to me, ‘You can do this. You’re a smart person and you can be successful.’ They told me anything that you want is possible with hard work.”
When the thick envelope came from Vassar, Erica was thrilled yet overwhelmed all at once. It was the school of her dreams: a leading liberal arts college in the picturesque Hudson Valley. But there was no way her parents could help her pay for it. Again, Moses swept in. He introduced her to Children’s Aid Trustee Charlton Y. Phelps, who mentored Erica and recommended her for the Children’s Aid Scholarship Program. “I reached out to many people in the agency, and no matter the many responsibilities they had, everyone took the time to help me,” Erica says.
Erica graduated Vassar and went on to receive her master’s degrees in social work and education, Doula and Infant Massage certifications. Today, she is the Education Director for Children’s Aid’s Early Head Start Program. At age 33, she’s spent more than half her life involved with Children’s Aid, and wouldn’t have it any other way. Her goal is to give other youngsters the confidence and access to opportunities that she received from her mentors at Children’s Aid.
“I want to be an example,” Erica says. “I needed someone to tell me the American dream was for me too and that my dreams were real. I want someone else to feel cared for, loved and understood. I continue with the agency today because, every day, I make a difference.”