Island Kids has launched its new initiative, Moving Forward, a program developed for high schoolers (ages 14-18), and separately, one for young adults (ages 18 - 30) with work readiness, cooking, and songwriting programs. They hope to bridge a programming gap that has an increased focus on younger children and babies, at the expense of teens and young adults, to provide enrichment and programming for this forgotten cohort.
Roosevelt Island suffers a glaring lack of available programming once kids hit their high school years. Island Kids, known for endeavoring to fill gaps in programming on the Island, has big plans for this older group.
While it might seem an odd choice for what was historically an infant and toddler enrichment program, Island Kids has grown into a much more rounded organization since its inception 20 years ago. When the Beacon Program contract and Youth Center Operator Request For Proposals were issued by the Roosevelt Operating Corporation last year, Island Kids Executive Director Nikki Leopold, who grew up on the Island and raised four daughters here, decided that it made sense for Island Kids to pursue both, in the hopes of expanding its programming to provide high-quality enrichment across all age groups.
Ultimately, The Child Center of NY won the Beacon RFP, and after an investigation revealed unsavory conduct by the former Youth Center operator, RIOC withdrew the Youth Center RFP, deciding to run its own programming instead. In doing so, and with the shuttering of the Youth Center for renovations, teens lost a valuable and necessary Island resource, with nothing to take its place.
Fortunately, the groundwork to fill this programming gap had already taken place. While doing prep work for the Egg Hunt three years ago, Leopold fell into a youth services conversation with Wendy Hersh, herself a long-time resident and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and Mental Health Coordinator.
As luck would have it, Ms. Hersh had a young adult program that she had developed and brought to then-Roosevelt Island Youth Program Director Charles DeFino (who held the youth operator contract) to implement. While initially enthusiastic, DeFino had ultimately decided that the Island had no need for the program, and abandoned the idea.
“Because of what I do in my professional job, we get people work-ready, I wrote up this proposal for her – it was work-readiness, and we would also offer resources: fatherhood programs, substance abuse, mental health – whatever was needed, because I do have the resources. Then we arranged with three different programs for work training – all entry-level jobs that we were going to fund. Once funded, we’ll help participants get internships and full-time jobs” explains Hersh.
Leopold recalls the conversation, and immediately was interested in learning more. “Wendy had this idea to provide vocational services; at that time it was for older people, maybe 18 to 30 year-olds. I could see the need, having grown up here and seeing the same kids on the street – it was obvious there was a big gap in services here, so we started talking about it,” she says. She secured Public Purpose Funds to initiate the program in 2018, and she and Hersh began developing a series of focus groups to get a sense of where the greatest servicing needs among young adults lay.
Hersh had been shopping the concept around because of issues she felt had not been resolved. She says, “This is our community, these are our kids –- don’t you want our kids to thrive? Everyone has complained about the kids hanging [out] on Main Street and in front of the deli since I can remember, but no one takes action to do anything for them. So when no one really wanted to back the program, and we got together, we just decided to do it ourselves.”
It’s taken a long time to get off the ground. Originally slated to start a year ago, the program suffered a blow when $50,000 in funding that had been pledged from TransCanada was withdrawn when the power plant ownership changed hands. It was a huge blow, and resulted in significant delays to the program launch.
Finally, two weeks ago, the Moving Forward Vocational Program, which targets 18 to 30 year-olds, launched the first of its six week program cycles. Meeting three times a week for six weeks, it offers a series of workshops designed to address possible barriers in finding and maintaining employment. Topics include interviewing skills, attitudes towards work, preparation for the work environment, stressors and demands of family, self-sabotage, adapting to the work environment, and anger management for those who need it.
“We’re helping them help themselves, we’re not telling them what to do, we’re asking the questions and allowing them to find the answers themselves. These kids really have a focus on what they want to do, they just don’t know how to get there. We want them to have the confidence,” Hersh says.
At the completion of the workshops, participants will receive a certificate and have an opportunity to choose from vocational programs, including security guard training, flagging, painting, and training to receive their drivers licenses.
“We have a vocational counselor, and so people who don’t feel comfortable in the group setting or have IEPs (Individual Education Programs) or whatever, can meet with her one-on-one as well, and we have referrals that will help them pay for school or vocational training” Leopold explains. All vocational training will be free of charge for the participants and paid for by the Moving Forward program.
“We are open to taking anybody who’s interested. We do an intake, to see if they are even a good fit. They have to really be committed to doing it – it's a commitment. If you're not going to come, or you’re only going to come once in a while, it's not going to work. They have to come for the six weeks, and get a completion certificate, and then they move on to the next step,” explains Hersh.
In addition to the vocational program, there is also a Moving Forward Teens program, which grew out of the need identified during the focus groups. “We had a huge group of teens coming to the teen focus group meeting – we didn’t initially anticipate how many kids would show up. It's still vocational, but it's more enrichment, so we have the cooking program, and a songwriting program in partnership with the Coler Hospital-based Open Doors program [which] is about to start,” Leopold says.
The Songwriting Program, which like all Moving Forward Teen programs is free of charge, is a songwriting and music video production program. Teens will work with members of Open Doors to learn songwriting and music production techniques, including use of samples, understanding tempo and rhythm, editing lyrics, collaborative songwriting, vocal editing and arrangement, storyboarding and performance technique. The program will culminate with students performing their song in their own music video. Students are also introduced to songwriting and music production as a possible career path.
The already popular cooking club started in the fall of last year, and is led by Island Kids teacher Nia Bailey. “There were 24 kids at the first class” Bailey reports. “I was amazed – but it's because otherwise they’ve got nothing. It’s fun to see them so excited, and I talk to them about other stuff, so it’s not just cooking. It's a safe space, where they all talk, and there’s a lot of kids that wouldn’t really hang out with each other otherwise.”
Operating out of the small Island Kids space, 536 Main Street, Bailey admits, is a challenge “It’s amazing what we can do with no real kitchen – we have no oven, we have a turkey fryer! And yet if we had an actual kitchen the stuff we could make would be incredible.”
The club meets once a week, and at the end of every semester they prepare and serve a meal, free of charge, to the community. This semester ended on Saturday with a Mother’s Day brunch in collaboration with Carter Burden and the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association.
“The kids are so excited about the Mother’s Day brunch at the Senior Center because they get to use the real kitchen. They’re going to do a whole mock restaurant, they’re going to take orders, they’re going to have a hostess – they’ve been talking about it for weeks,” shared Bailey.
The class provides something in short supply elsewhere on the Island – having a place where they are welcomed and encouraged. “This little thing makes them so happy,” says Bailey.
Bailey goes on to list additional ideas she hopes to offer the teens in the program: dance classes, a beauty program, and has already started enlisting professionals in those fields to help out.
Leopold and Hersh are excited about the possibilities and hope to expand the program further.
“We are going to start other groups to provide more resources, including fatherhood groups, women’s empowerment. Whatever they need, we have the resources at our fingertips to provide it,” Hersh says.