From War Zone to Brotherhood:
How Sheltering Arms’ Sexual Reproductive Workshops
transform the landscape.
Children and adults who find refuge under the Sheltering Arms umbrella have experienced daunting obstacles on the road to well-being. But if you’re like Jerome*—a youth attending sexual health and reproduction education programs at a Sheltering Arms Youth Center—you’ve faced particularly risky, even life-threatening, odds.
You've gone to school in a country where only 57 percent of students receive education reducing an alphabet soup of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis, Chlamydia, HPV, herpes and more. One teen is diagnosed with HIV every hour of every single day. If you identify as a member of the GLBTQ community like Jerome, you have the dubious distinction of being in a group targeted for more hate crimes than any other. Those are the national numbers.
Closer to home in Jerome’s Greater New York, one in two people under 25 has an STI. In Far Rockaway—half-jokingly called “a war zone in the HIV/STI battle”—teenage girls are less likely to get HPV screenings than their peers in New York City.
“It’s also not cool to disclose HIV status,” reflects Morine Bowen-Avery—Director of Sheltering Arms’ Health and Prevention Programs (right).
Bowen-Avery was introduced to HIV-related needs back in seminary, “at a time when churches were judgmental,” but she’s dismayed by lack of awareness that still puts young people at risk today. “A lot of them think ‘this can’t happen to me if I’m not gay.’ Gay youth are thinking, ‘it won’t happen to me,’ because they haven’t seen their friends die.” She pauses. Game-changing medications notwithstanding, “it’s always hard to lose a client.”
Sheltering Arms Youth Centers have robust partnerships throughout Jamaica and Rockaway (for example, Northwell Hospital’s Adolescent HIV Unit and the AIDS Center of Queens County—Queens’ largest provider of HIV services). Yet Bowen-Avery acknowledges “some people won’t enter the building [where her office is located] just to avoid being associated with HIV.” Indeed, emigrants using Sheltering Arms’ other HIV- and STI-related services may not disclose, because doing so in their countries of origin was treacherous.
Safe talk also is a precious chance to counter the mistrust of young people like Jerome, who’s used a range of such Sheltering Arms programs and workshops to change his life for the better.
Articulate and deeply courteous (you’re “Miss” or “Mister” until you invite him to be less formal), Jerome opens conversations with, “It’s an honor to speak” and closes with, “Have a nice day.” He excels at complex, strategically dense card games. Having overcome years of stigma and isolation, it’s no coincidence that his favorite card game is called “Magic”.
Jerome was an infant when his dad died, scattering the family. He’s still not sure how many siblings he has (“I believe two brothers and two sisters, but I only have a relationship with one”). Moving a lot, he was always “one of only three black kids at school; sort of the lonesome black kid.” His identification as pan-sexual created challenges all too familiar to black and Latino boys identifying as GBTQ.
“Everybody thinks homosexuality comes in a happy rainbow shade They’re wrong. There are a lot of people who say, ‘Ooooh, homosexual! Gotta run! I can’t be your friend.’ A label is hard to get rid of.” True; when Sheltering Arms helped another youth move to Harlem to escape deep feelings of persecution, his relief was palpable. “You have a place for me here,” he uttered, when he arrived.
At first, Jerome saw the Center as just “a place to stay out of trouble. You could go on the computers and hang out.” But his first program (on sexual health and wellness) was eye-opening. No one judged. No one hurt anyone else. He didn’t tell his mom about the groups, in the beginning.
These days, Young Men 2 Young Men is his favorite group, headed by Outreach Coordinator, Tyrone Thompson. Thompson tells of his own HIV diagnosis to break the ice, and Jerome appreciates that forthrightness; “it gives you a real platform for sharing.” Participants identify as gay, bi-sexual, pan-sexual and straight. That’s somewhat remarkable, given the group’s locale in “the most homophobic place in the city,” comments Amy Wilkerson, Sheltering Arms’ Director of Youth Services.
“There are definitely shadows,” Tyrone Thompson agrees. They are why he uses such a bright, clear Facebook Avatar (left) to draw participants. But beyond the brightness, he thinks about the disproportionate risk of homelessness among GLBTI youths. He thinks about how it predisposes them to trading sex for basics like work, housing, food. “I’ve been homeless myself.”
He clears his throat, looking down. But then he pivots, with an exuberant list of participants’ names and phrases that capture their collective dynamic: “The Place to Be. A Light. A Beacon. More Than Food. A Place Where People Aren’t Leaving. A Brotherhood.”
This kind of evidence-based group model (increasingly used throughout the organization) helps participants make strides. Indeed, according to Sheltering Arms Program Coordinator, Racquel Jones, groups may be the first time many youths engage in public health issues directly affecting them. “They see they’re not the only ones struggling, and they come back. They become consistent.” To meet their interests and needs, Wilkerson adds, “we’re probably doing about 15 to 20 different workshops per month, with a mix of trips, panels and other ways to engage youths in a pro-social way.”
There’s also a ripple effect. Different areas of this vast organization convene for Pride Parades. Events like a memorial after the Orlando shooting are drawing more youths (right). “Empowerment turns kids into activists,” Bowen-Avery observes.
Walking past the open door of a Young Men 2 Young Men session, Amy Wilkerson overhears a youth encourage others to use condoms. “You think you’re not at risk, but you never know. You could save lives.” Another shares his girlfriend’s news that she’s HIV positive. “I wouldn’t have known, if she hadn’t said something. I’m lucky I use protection.”
Wilkerson is stunned by their comfort level and candor. “I don’t think they knew they needed to protect themselves until hearing it from each other.” She’s not amazed, however, that participants represent a range of sexual preferences including heterosexual, despite meeting in a community known for its homophobia. “This is just what we do.”
Could it be a model for a nation desperate for examples of how to get along? She chuckles. “Yeah.”
As for Jerome, he’d like young people to know the groups and programs are “some of the best places to not just talk but to finally get services to help you. This is one of the few places to offer services and a safe environment to have these conversations—to express these things. A lot of people have these bottled up feelings….Plus, I can’t say that I would have gotten some of the jobs I’ve gotten without my coordinator.”
Jerome is thinking about his future, now that some of Sheltering Arms’ employment programs and services have helped him get more focused. “I would love to be the owner of my own hobby shop,” he confesses, referring to his skill at Yugioh and Magic.
“I grew up infatuated with card games. I figure why not incorporate that into something that would benefit everybody?”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
When it comes to solving the world’s biggest problems, today’s cross-sector efforts are impressive. Right now, 194 nations are collaborating to get food and life-saving vaccines to remote parts of the world desperate for both.
But in America – home to the world’s richest economy – quality education, healthcare, and safe streets still elude communities where Sheltering Arms young people live, learn, and play. Our Safe Space Youth Social Justice Corps channels their voices in promising—and surprising—ways.
The Youth Corps– originally started in response to our country’s rising social justice movements over the past three years – already demonstrates potential as a key lever in Sheltering Arms’ evolving grassroots community-building. Its members (ages 15-24) hail from an array of Sheltering Arms programs. Young as they are, life in disenfranchised communities renders them experts on some of the nation’s most compelling issues. They have felt hopeless about their futures; they have been kicked out of homes and schools; they have dropped out, and some already have faced incarceration. Meet the changemakers.
Change From the Inside, Out
In a recent Sheltering Arms survey of almost 100 youths, a stark 60 percent felt unequally treated by law enforcement. Many battled racial profiling, low/no access to housing, and a dearth of educational or job opportunities. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and intersexual youths feared being turned away from shelters and health clinics or being bullied at work. One young woman, newly a mom, worried about the fact that “programs stop at 24 or 25,” and “there is still so much I don’t know and need help with.” Those who had petitioned City Council hadn’t seen changes. Asked to define social justice, one youth wrote, “I don’t know what social justice is.”
The Corps convenes roughly 20 from that survey, all embarking on a journey from frustrated and skeptical, to intrigued and even hopeful. Staff members remark on youths’ consistent attendance at trainings in efforts to become policy-literate and learn positive, practical tactics for change.
“The trainings create a buzz,” Sheltering Arms Youth Coordinator, Marc Yves-Barosy, suggests. “So when youth walk through their neighborhoods and see problems, they think about how to correct them: ‘What about getting that streetlight fixed? What about joining that local Council? What Borough President can you talk to?’” Indeed, some youth travel an hour-and-a-half on multiple trains and buses to attend the trainings at Sheltering Arms’ Flagship New York City offices. Once there, they discover an array of options. That includes learning about volunteer opportunities to become more fluent in their neighborhoods’ needs (e.g., a Day of Service or in community gardens and food pantries).
The Corps’ first foray into the community – to encourage voter registration in Mott Haven and Queens – was eye-opening. Their “Activism 101” training had illuminated why registration matters in a country where a meager 36 percent of voters cast ballots in 20142. Excited and a little nervous, clipboards, pens, and voter registration forms in hand, they stood on street corners, in front of malls, and outside McDonald’s. To their surprise, “People didn’t want to talk to us. They think you’re trying to sell them something.” But passers-by did welcome the Corps’ informative flyers in English and Spanish, delineating who’s on the November 7 ballot and what they do (really, what is a Comptroller?). They’ll be out on Election Day.
How Training Works: A Snapshot
Anthony Posada is surrounded by soda, water, takeout Chinese food, and staff and Youth Corps members, as he launches into “Know Your Rights Training on Police Encounters.” A Legal Aid Society Public Defender, Mr. Posada also founded the non-profit, Project Attica, leveraging his own brand of “artivisim” – social justice-themed art activities that help underserved communities. Posada has been on the wrong side of “stop-and-frisk” himself, so his knowledge goes deep. But so does his belief in the transformative power of art.
“Raise your hand, if you know what your Miranda rights are,” he encourages. Hands spring up everywhere – and fast. “I think you have the right to not give them your name?” someone volunteers. “I got a question,” another member says. “Don’t you have the right to remain silent?” Posada captures their ideas on the board, as the room leans in to decode mystifying laws.
For the role-playing improv on positive interaction with law enforcement, he asks, “Who wants to be the criminal?” Again, hands spring up, as do a few enthusiastic participants. “Sit down and eat your eggroll!” one jovially teases.
After role-playing, Mr. Posada pivots: “I take my cue from you – what’s on your mind most?” A lot, it turns out, based on their responses: “I feel like I would be much better on community boards. It’s a much more personal thing.” “I really want to talk to the elected officials in my community.” “We’re preaching to the choir.” “We need to write this down.”
Amy Wilkerson, Director of Youth Services, reminds them, “As long as you guys want to do this, we’ll be there. One year, two years, whatever you need.” The reassuring commitment sparks plans to work with elected officials. One previously silent youth chimes in: “I really want to do that.” Another agrees, “One day I want to be one of those officials.”
For the whole two hours, real-time Instagrams capture an increasingly hopeful process: #socialjustice #youth #learning #savelives #education #shelteringarms #safe #roleplay #awareness #protective #learningtogether. Members huddle over a table even after the session has formally ended. They’re writing ideas in their phones and on flyers, as they trail down the hallway toward buses and trains.
What’s Up with the Future? Toward a New Story of Engagement
Beyond inspiring a cadre of social innovators, the Youth Social Justice Corps’ potential to cast unique alliances already is informing Sheltering Arms as it reshapes its values over the next five years. There also is hope members will inspire each other and perhaps even become community leaders. Their 2018 Action Plan includes community board meetings, raising awareness on the steps of City Hall, going to Albany for Advocacy Day, and more.
Samantha Curtin, Sheltering Arms’ South Bronx Coordinator, “would love to see them join those local community boards.” For her, it’s personal; she vividly remembers being the little kid whose mom brought her into the voting booth to let her pull the lever. If she could paint an artivism T-Shirt, hers would just say: “Be the Change.”
Assistant Program Director, Leonard Haughton, shares Ms. Curtin’s sentiment. He’s been standing on the room’s periphery all evening during “Know Your Rights,” marveling at “what is happening in these meetings. You don’t usually see this age group of males engaged on topics like this.”
What accounts for the difference? Mr. Haughton laughs: “I don’t know the answer to that one!” But he adds, “They attract each other’s attention. They’re turning into civic leaders rather than passive recipients. Maybe they see they can build a stronger community.”
The challenges are big and won’t likely end in a day, a week, or even a year. But in that time, these young changemakers may do more than capture local leaders’ attention; they may prove a salient point. Even when they’re not role-playing, they’re their own best role models.
 On September 25th 2015, 194 countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals—a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.
 According to the New York T
As a single mother with an autistic seven-year-old, Marguerite already felt overwhelmed by life. So she was scared when her infant, Francis, started crying for 12 hours at a time. Then he stopped napping. Then he stopped looking at people. He stopped looking at her. Marguerite froze.
A recent immigrant from a West African community where mental health challenges were stigmatized, Marguerite’s fear makes sense. “And she wasn’t sure of her English. She felt victimized by the system,” notes Dr. Irene Mazer, Sheltering Arms’ Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant. But beneath those reasons, Dr. Mazer and staff discovered a more trenchant challenge. “She didn’t want people to find out she was ‘a failure'”.
That fear had taken its toll. By the time Marguerite found Sheltering Arm’s Early Childhood Education program, Francis had been struggling almost half his young life. Even then, Dr. Mazer notes that just considering a home visit was progress. “We knew how to help, but needed her permission to give support. That first home-visit was terrifying. He was clearly struggling, and she was in denial.” Still, “just getting there was a success.”
After many false starts, “many texts and a combination of tools to gain her trust,” Marguerite and Francis met Dr. Mazer on the street corner by the building where he would be evaluated. Going in together, they found an explanation; Francis likely was “on the low-range of the autism spectrum.” They also found solutions at Sheltering Arms: Early Head Start programming for him and a Parents Group for her.
Getting to that Group was progress, too. In her first session, the woman next to Marguerite brought up her ten-year-old autistic son and his “special school.” A light went on. A door opened. Possibility dawned, “and suddenly she belonged.”
In fact, today, Marguerite is her child’s best advocate, according to Dr. Mazer. “Yesterday, she ran up to me before the Parent’s Group – breathless – so excited. She’d made a leap as an advocate for her son and couldn’t wait to tell me.”
She told Dr. Mazer about how a local resource center had limited Francis’ special education time to 10 hours, how she’d been counting on 20 hours, how she’d summoned her best “Dr. Mazer” persona, insisting that “my Early Head Start Program is going to say that 10 hours is not acceptable.” That’s what Dr. Mazer would say. Then she did what Dr. Mazer would do, and called the coordinator at the resource center, who agreed.
With Marguerite advocating for his every need, Francis has stopped crying for hours at a time. Now this little one, who had never taken a nap, takes them regularly, thanks to teachers at Sheltering Arms. Even mom was surprised by that. But the truest sign of progress for a young mom who once ran from fellowship is her self-regard. “I’m just running out to get a soda, and then I’m coming back for your group!” she told Dr. Mazer. The topic of the day was: How to enhance healthy relationships.
Marguerite stayed for the entire session.
Women Who Give:
The Chronicle of Philanthropy Stages a Webinar on Female Giving Trends
When Lady Anne Radcliffe funded a scholarship fund at little college called “Harvard” in 1643, she probably didn’t see herself as a trend-setting philanthropist.
Or maybe she did, to hear to hear experts, Kathleen Loehr and Beth M. Mann speak about the giving habits of this oddly “under the radar group,” at The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Webinar – “Fundraising and the Female Donor."
Hosted by The Chronicle ‘s Maria Di Mento, development officers and communications directors heard surprising, useful news. Women give more expansively – “along the lines of global empowerment,” according to Loehr (manager of Orr and Associates), when the money is their own. The Ms.Foundation’s high concentration of women donors whose “lives were changed by the Women’s Movement,” is a prime example. As Associate Vice President of the Jewish Federations of America, Mann offers further evidence of the importance of focusing on women as a demographic. The Federation’s success with women’s philanthropy programs raises nearly $180 Million each year.
Both offered metrics: women constitute the fastest growing sector of small business owners. They are six times more likely to give from earned, rather than inherited funds. Also, Loehr referenced Cornell and Princeton Universities’ abilities to engage women as leaders on boards and councils. By the end of the hour, the sea-change in giving was obvious.
From pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly’s $100 Million to Poetry magazine; to feminist Joan Palesky’s $200 Million bequest to the California Community Foundation; and Joan Kroc’s (widow of McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc) Salvation Army gift - the largest bequest on record ($1.5 billion), Lady Anne would be proud.
Mentor, Guru, Sage. Mentor, Guru, Sage.
The words evoke images of elders dropping gems into the palms of callow protégés.
But for all their well-earned honors and scars, you won’t find Women in Development/NY’s mentors on a mountaintop; they’re in a meeting. “Whether you’ve just started or you’re an experienced professional in search of support, having a mentor is crucial for any woman working in development,” says Carol Ausubel Blumenfeld, CFRE. She and fellow Board member, Heidi Ihrig, co-chair WiD’sCareer Advancement and Coaching Committee.
Terry Billie, WiD member and mentor, agrees. When she graduated, she stepped into a world where “Men far out-numbered women as professional fundraisers. We were all volunteers. You heard a lot of, ‘We can give you an internship, but we can’t pay you.’”
That’s changed. Blumenfeld is a Senior Major & Planned Giving Officer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Ihrig is Associate Director of Development at Parsons The New School for Design; and Billie is Director of Corporate & Foundation Relations at Goodwill of New York & New Jersey. They and a dozen other women form WiD’s mentoring program—one of the many benefits of membership. Volunteercoaches do this for fun and for free.
“Guidance on job challenges is significant at any time of life, but when you’re new to the field, it’s vital,” says Blumenfeld. Ihrig adds that member requests for coaching rose by one third last year. This growth was partly due to the increased ease of on-line registration, but also because “Our members are exploring a market that’s more competitive than ever.” That intense influx of interest makes networking matter, according to Billie, whose coaching recently helped a mentee land two clients.
"Let's face it. Women still make less than men and fall behind in holding top business, government, and nonprofit leadership positions,” says fellow WiD member and coach, Kelly Brennan. “Having a woman ahead of me on the journey breaks the glass ceiling, so to speak.” Brennan, the Associate Vice President of College Advancement for The College of New Rochelle, says unbiased peer perspective is worth more than gold; it’s worth grants. “We hold the fate of millions of dollars in our hands. It’s critically important to have this program.”
These pros won’t be lingering on a mountaintop any time soon, so sustained inspiration matters. Billie finds it in her own “brilliant and wacky, fun and successful coach. She’s doing what I want to do, when I’m almost ready to retire.” But even an excuse is proof that mentoring works.
In the words of one WiD member who couldn’t attend an event: “I have new clients. I’m so busy! Blame it on my mentor.”
Welcome to my inaugural blog!
Although I'd hoped to start on a high note, I'm starting on a soaring one, instead; it's the grown-up example of how it looks when everybody wins.
The left-hand photo has lived on the inside cover of every script I've memorized and every appeal idea I've had, since I saw it on the cover of The New York Times on inauguration day of 2009.
At the time, I wondered at the paper's choice to feature a picture of the president’s back on that day, of all days. Considering it further, I understood. On that day America was the exuberant, curious, excited child. On that day, the kid was the point. The relaxed president and game first lady held the space.
Last week, there was another picture on the cover of The Times (to your right). Governor Christie, President Obama, and an older woman were looking for what she'd lost in the hurricane. I couldn’t miss the resonance. These pictures speak to each other.
Time had changed the issue but not the composition. And what we hold as self-evident went from innocent awe, to defiant humility.
It takes courage not to let Time change composition. It takes a mission. It seems to me.
Glad you're here,
October 29th, 2013: Hurricane Sandy takes out so many power grids, that children wear snowsuits at home in Breezy Point.
September 11, 2001: The Twin Tower collapse is so broadly felt,
that a nine-year-old in Colorado sends his entire $1 allowance to a Disaster Relief Fund in New York.
These two events have more than a decade between them, but the Robin Hood Foundation’s Emary Aronson drew on them equally, as a panelist at the Better Business Bureau’s Charity Effectiveness Symposium VII: Resilient New York - How Nonprofit Leaders Are Managing the Unexpected.
Hosted by Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, the symposium drew more than 300 representatives of the foundations, social service agencies, and community organizations on the front lines of New York’s safety net. Speaking of lessons learned and strategies gained, panelists told of managing the unexpected in visceral, technical and even humorous ways. They extolled collaboration. They worked across sectors. They praised fear, as the mother of invention. Really. They praised fear.
For Funders like David Okorn, Executive Director of Long Island Community Foundation, collaboration expressed in the“boots on the ground” work to house and feed the stranded. He noted its mandate, too, in working with long-term funders to address damage and destruction that affected over 100,000 homes. The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s President, Marylyn Gelber, described social media’s catapult, from Luxury Good to Life-saver. And Ms. Aronson’s remarks, as Managing Director of the Robin Hood Foundation’s Education & Relief Fund, completed the profile of engaged funders at work.
They tweeted to hold on to overlooked regions; and their board members used personal cell phones to connect with isolated communities. Above all, closer alignment with fellow foundations was key.
In the category of Leaders, panelists touted resilience from the inside, out. Co-Director of Community Resource Exchange, Valerie K. Laedlein, extolled the virtues of transparency and of consultants who ask “hard questions in a very positive way.” (Laughter in the hall.) The brass tacks of grant-seeking in an increasingly metrics-conscious climate were discussed, too, as was the need to delegate authority (“There’s no shame in a leader not having all the answers...”).
The line between “funder” and “leader” became vague at best, with a keynote by Sheena Wright, President & CEO of the United Way of New York. Many who spoke, including Ms. Wright, have personal contexts for the source of resilience. Stories of challenges as parents, Peace Corps Volunteers and entrepreneurs abounded.
And at the end of the morning, the vote was unanimous, as expressed by one of the Symposium's five moderators. In the realm of the unexpected, “you can always count on heart and generosity.”
I’ve been thinking about an interview I did with kids called “the worst of the worst” – a term that made the executive director of their school wince, and I don’t blame him.
As is often the case with physically and emotionally abused kids like these, their stories were unforgettable. They've been living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a diagnosis once limited to Vietnam veterans but now extended to children in an urban war which shakes the very foundation of their beliefs about safety and shatters their assumptions of trust.
So these interviewees were skittish. They were exhausted and wound up simultaneously, heads down on their desks, or unable to sit in their chairs. They were not happy to be in school in July, and so they were rebellious. They would not, in effect, give this writer their names.
Determined, I called this their great opportunity. “I write these things that are published, which means all of the grown-ups who believe in this place and who want you to do well will read what I write.”
“And they should hear from you, because you’re the guys who matter here.”
“This is your chance.”
“To be millionaires?” One of them quips.
“That’s right, to be millionaires. To be in the news. To be heard.”
Interest was piqued. Of my voice recorder, they wondered would they have a chance to hear themselves. “Absolutely. I would hate to have someone interview me and then not get to hear what I said.”
Would they get to read about themselves? “Well, of course.” The floodgates then opened – a torrent of sounds and laughter, and finally competing – not fighting, but competing – to be heard.
They had big plans.
“I want to go to Africa!”
“I want to be a Fireman! No! Can I change that? I want to be at least three things!”
“I think we should have a drama club.”
“I’m on the Student Council!”
“Can you spell disestablishtentarianism?”
“Well, that’s not how you pronounce it, but I‘m impressed that you asked.” (Let me say right here, that when I went home, I had to check that to be sure.)
They made me laugh. And then they made me laugh harder.
Begging for more time, as I shut off a voice recorder full of dreams the littlest of us didn’t get to have until now, they shouted over each other: “I’m the teacher! I’m the teacher!” I wish I'd told them what I was thinking: “In fact, you are.”
Truly, I hope we grant writers ultimately activate new and creative ways to connect vulnerable populations to authentic possibility. These stories redefine learning, and these kids graduate from despair, when they're noticed. Notice them enough, and these particular students might make trauma look like, well, "history."
PS: Disestablishmentarianism: the longest word in the English Dictionary. I looked it up.