On the southern part of Roosevelt Island lies the gleaming Cornell Tech campus, a graduate school designed to engage our rapidly evolving global society. It opened in the fall with fanfare and a who’s who of politicians and luminaries. In the north sits rehabilitation hospital NYC Health & Hospitals/Coler, a public hospital that opened in 1952 to care for patients with long-term needs. In 2013, Coler took in some of the patients displaced by Goldwater Hospital’s demolition that made way for the Cornell Tech campus.
In many ways, the two ends of the Island could not be farther apart. But students like Kenneth Chan are discovering the value of bridging that divide.
“Before Cornell Tech, I had never heard of Roosevelt Island,” says Chan, a 2018 MBA graduate. He came to New York in 2017 to attend the university and rented an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “The City was too noisy for me. The Island became my oasis, so to speak, a peaceful place where I could focus on my studies and my corporate development, so it became even more important to me to understand and connect with the community and its residents.”
When he met Jennilie Brewster, founder of Open Doors, a nonprofit arts and justice initiative that helps physically challenged Coler residents affected by gun violence, he found the opportunity to give back to his adopted community while using some of his technical skills.
“When Jennilie spoke to me about a music project that was in the works, I immediately knew that this was something that I had to be a part of,” he says.
Chan became an advocacy coach for the group. He also helped members edit their podcast project and assisted as a technician during poetry performances.
Andres Molina (left) with Kenneth Chan at Coler Hospital.
It was a good fit. “Working with Open Doors and its members has been a great experience,” he says. “Helping good people that are eager to learn and improve themselves while being incapacitated is what motivates me to be involved in the community.”
This wasn’t his first time giving back. After a 2012 move to Los Angeles, Chan worked in the media industry as a product manager and led a team of software developers. But he says he always remembered how lucky he was, and how much he had to give. “I’ve always been passionate about giving back to the community. I founded a music nonprofit, Project Cadence, while in L.A. Our mission was to provide musical instruments and supplies to underprivileged students.”
He also started making his own music and spent a lot of time in the studio creating hip hop tracks. “I loved my time in Los Angeles. I was so busy I had to stop playing the piano, but working in the studio making music made me feel like I could achieve anything I put my mind to.” His enthusiasm about music, and the confidence gained from making it, were valuable additions to the Open Doors team.
“Working with Open Doors has been both extremely inspirational and humbling,” says Chan. “The experience has had a profound impact on me and I’ve learned so much from working with such a great group of individuals. Hearing their stories and seeing first-hand the perseverance and determination has taught me more than what I could ever teach them as an advocacy coach.”
Chan was born in 1989 and grew up in a diverse neighborhood in New Orleans. His mother, a piano teacher, inspired him to start playing piano at the age of five. His father, an engineer and businessman, started inculcating the idea of going to college in him at an early age. After graduating from high school, Kenneth attended Northwestern University in Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics.
Partnerships like this are what makes a community, says Chan. We can all learn from one another and we all have something to teach. “Throughout my studies this year, I have taken those lessons and perspectives into various aspects of my life and I will continue to do so. It has been amazing working with Open Doors and the relationship that I have forged with each member is something that I will always cherish.”
[Andres Molina is the communications director for Open Doors, and a Coler resident.]