Hope and Potential in the New Year!
by Maury Ayora
The park sat underneath a bridge by the Hudson River. I took a seat to the side and after my heart resumed its metronomic groove, my place in the world came back to flood the banks of my thoughts. The following day I was to board a plane for San Diego and walk my sister down the aisle. The next month I was to start my first semester in college, something long overdue. Life was falling into place for the first time in what seemed a very long while.
But life has a way of making sure you are always on your toes. It seeks validation for its effort in giving you the chance to achieve your dreams, should you have them. A dream itself is the basis of all hope. And hope is the reason we get up each morning. That day I was to find out how much I really wanted to stand my ground here on earth, with all the vast opportunities and wonder it offers to each of us. I got into an accident. One that took some physical capability away from me, but couldn’t take themore important root of hope.
There is a reason, that in the face of overwhelming circumstances or occurrences we brave face and hold onto better times. We either believe in ourselves or have others that do so on our behalf. It so important – to have someone on your side. Through that very difficult time I knew that there were others who had my back. Both before, during and after. That is a blanket of security, hope and love. I consider myself fortunate to find myself underneath that blanket. It is one woven by family, friends and our community. For me, part of this blanket has been programs such as GDS.
Weeks later, I am sitting in an auditorium celebrating the 20th anniversary of GDS. Growth and Development Services (GDS) is a community-based agency founded 20 years ago by Dr. Gary Altheim – a man who’s life has been devoted to providing counseling, workshops and camp to youth in poor communities. GDS seeks to alter the very circumstances of youth much like me. To provide them with the necessary skills, counseling, and other tools youth in Washington Heights lack with regards to school curriculum, parental negligence, and overall impoverished conditions. As I sat in my seat, listening to the poetry, testimonials and presentations this group of summer youth worked on, I reflected on my own experiences with the program and felt similar resonation with regards to feelings of hope, opportunity, and resilience.
A single parent household is unfortunately not an uncommon experience for much of those in my neighborhood. I remember scrapping quarters together to afford groceries. Running home if it was dark as the streets were prone to violence after hours. Poverty and fear go hand in hand in neighborhoods like these and it affects all aspects of the lives of those who grow up in its crushing constraints. I was thrown about different family members households throughout my childhood as my mother struggled to pay for bills and achieve an education herself. This revolving door of responsibility left me without a place to truly call home. I suspect this is the case for much of my peers in the community.
In the sixth grade, my mother enrolled my sister andI into the services of GDS. At that time, GDS was a year long, homogenous program. It’s service to the community (and asDr Gary saw fit) was close to its angelic vision. Camp Excel, a weeklong retreat during the summer, was the highlight of its program. Camp Excel’s peer to peer workshops on mental wellness forged close relationships between the youth. The challenges of high ropes and other activities taught us how to work together, trust each other and most importantly – it gave us the release from our caged, myopic views of the world. We were given new insight as we woke up each morning in wooden cabins by a lake – a stark contrast to the gritty, boxed-in grid of uptown Manhattan. This was not some HR trip a Fortune 500 company organizes for its begrudging employees. This was much needed for me, my sister and the other youth. The best moment in my cache of memories at camp was when an older teen taught me a guitar riff that I performed at the end of camp celebration. The first time I played music for an audience. That teen who taught me (and forgive me for not remembering his name) was much like me. A slightly alternative kid who even in our harsh neighborhood, found himself an outsider. This here was a place kids like us could come together. This here was a place I could call home.
When camp was over, we were thrown back into the throes of Washington heights. A once a year retreat is unfortunately not quite enough for a constant escape. GDS is well aware of this and in its prime of operation, set up a year-long program for those who attended camp. It’s important also to stress that the relationships formed at camp encouraged us to reconnect and follow up with the Excel program throughout the year.
The youth had weekly workshops that centered on a variety of topics geared to provide us with the tools and information necessary to tread the harsh streets we walked each day. These workshops included drug awareness, sexual health awareness and college readiness – amongst others. Social workers met with us once a week on our mental wellbeing and overall progress. Parents were encouraged to attend whenever they could. GDS put out all the stops to make sure that we were well looked after.
When you think of education and school, what comes to mind first is math, reading, writing, science. All very important, yet they lack education of self. This is where the parents become the teachers. Needless to say, we are not all blessed with the required set of parents to set us on our way to a prosperous life.This is even more the case in neighborhoods like Washington Heights. There are countless kids stuck in these circumstances and for them, programs like GDS are a necessity. It is a not a substitute for parenting, but when the other option is education by the streets, things start to come into perspective. In a way, GDS counselors became excellent surrogate mentors for us, the attending youth.
As I sat in that auditorium reflecting on all of those wonderful experiences, I was also struck by crushing disappointment. At its 20th anniversary, GDS was not operating at the level of influence it deserves. Funding was low, willful blindness was high and the outlook of its progression was unclear. I was worried about the livelihood of the program and so I approachedDr Gary and asked him about the future of the agency he created.Dr Gary told me that GDS is indeed reviving and thriving. After a few tough years of bureaucratic, David and Goliath type struggles, GDS secured its space at the Armory in the heights – a massive victory. In light of this, he also said that old and new volunteers were needed to support GDS’s 20th anniversary and campaign.
That brings us to me, an alumni of the program who wants to give back to a program that helped me personally so much. But my story is just but one. My own sister, another alumna, is a teacher in California who would also attest to GDS’s influence on her personal life trajectory
Despite all of the adversities typically associated with non-profits, GDS survived and secured its home at the Armory. For a few tough years, “Reaching Your Potential” (GDS’s campaign slogan and program model) had been sadly underrepresented. Yet this is a program that simply must not go away. In fact, its proven track record should be more than enough for it to continue it’s great work. GDS at its peak had Camp Excel as an annual retreat. Camp Excel was crucial in forging close relationships between the staff and youth – encouraging them to return throughout the year for its ongoing, weekly workshops. These are some of the programs we need to bring back and improve on in our mission of community progression.
My personal experience, knowledge of the challenges of our community, in conjunction with awareness of GDS’s positive influence on the community, has led me to become part of the team. As a youth who grew up in Washington Heights and saw how GDS had such tremendous influence on myself and my peers, I am greatly encouraged to give back, to continue reaching my potential and help other youth do the same through the power of writing, blogging and community advocating. I hope you can join me on this deeply valuable and important journey!
And so, I ask you to consider this: think of the writers, artists, teachers and other valuable members of society who’s seeds are planted in Washington heights. Think of their dreams to blossom and become a burgeoning forest of prosperity through weeds of grit and poverty. These seeds need your help. Help us relaunch the “Reach Your Potential” movement, a grassroots campaign that stands for all of what GDS is about. Youth empowerment, awareness and progression. Talk to your children’s schools, community leaders, potential supporters or anyone else on how we can equip this great community with the tools its budding cast of potential artists and leaders need to prosper. Share our stories and events on your social media. Give us ideas on other ways to help the youth in our community. Most important, become part of the Reach Your Potential movement in any capacity. The flourishment of our community, Washington Heights and Inwood, depends on our youth. Let’s finally equip them with the tools they need to succeed. To Reach Their Potential!
We are here – the artists, thinkers and leaders of Washington Heights’ youth and we need programs like GDS to help us excel. This has been part of my story. I look forward to sharing more of them as well as hearing some of yours. Please stay tuned for further blogs!