I went to Harlem this weekend with some friends who live there. We went for the food, and we stayed after to play in Jackie Robinson Park with my two kids. It was an idyllic day, and though I could see that it was different in some ways from being in my own West Village neighborhood I was mostly noticing how it was the same. Same clusters of kids making playgrounds boisterous, same slightly weary moms or dads keeping an eye out, same couples trolling for a place to dine. But all neighborhoods have their histories, their own journeys, migrations towards the future – and particularly, threads that weave through a neighborhood of local leaders and institutions that can shape what the future looks like for the children of a neighborhood.
These local leaders and institutions are evident in little things – are the playgrounds safe, is the equipment freshly painted? In the playgrounds I visited, they were. How are the schools, the crime, the availability of nutritious food? How’s unemployment, college graduation rates? Now we start to talk about the big things. But these things are less dictated by history than they are by the local leaders and institutions that claim the neighborhood as their own. HEAF, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, and its VP of Programs Merle McGee, are exactly the kind of institution and leader that are shaping this neighborhood’s future, and in truly incredible ways.
It’s not something I do very often, but today I am compelled to ask my friends and family to give to a good cause. The cause is a service learning trip by a group of young people from Harlem that are part of HEAF, a program designed to give them an opportunity to fulfill their potential through enrichment programs and support in attending and graduating from 4 year colleges. I met the VP of Programs, Merle McGee, several months ago and she is a dynamo of passion and dedication to the young people she works with.
Every year, a group of students goes on a service learning trip, and this year they’re going to do a cultural preservation project with the Garifuna. According to Merle “The Garifuna are descendents of Africans bound for slavery and indigenous Carib Indians of St. Vincent. Never heard of them? Well, despite being named a Masterpiece of Intangible Human Heritage by UNESCO, the Garifuna way of life and language are dying. HEAF scholars will partner with Garifuna youth to develop an interactive cultural preservation website for children throughout the Garifuna Diaspora.”
Giving should be about the receiver, and I am often critical of giving that centers on the giver, but this is really about both to me. The project that the HEAF Scholars will undertake with the Garifuna and the value it will have for them as young leaders is incredibly worthwhile – I have no doubts about that. But when I got the note from Merle asking for $50 to support the trip and project, I had this feeling that I was the lucky one that I would have a way to participate in some small way in this inspiring endeavor. This is not just about a good cause, but about a vision of the world where young people who have themselves been confronted by challenges are reaching outside of themselves, their community, their country, to connect with, learn from and honor another community that has faced even greater challenges. In a time when people everywhere are pulling inwards, driven by fear and anxiety, the picture I have in my mind of the HEAF Scholars on this trip fills me with hope.
I find this project inspiring in a way that is irresistible, and this is a gift that will make me feel connected to that sense of hope. Some gifts are like that, and I guess that’s OK. For whatever might motivate you – the desire to support high potential Harlem youth, the desire to help preserve a precious and unique culture, or the desire to be part of a beautiful story of what’s possible in the world – or maybe just the desire to follow the lead of a very enthusiastic blogger – I hope you’ll consider giving $50 to this project. If you do, I hope it gives you the same lift that it has given me to tell you about this beautiful initiative.
To give, click here and select Learning for Social Impact as the program you’d like to support. And then just enjoy that feeling. It’s not always this easy. In fact, it rarely is.
The Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, is a comprehensive, non-profit supplemental education and youth development organization that helps motivated students develop the intellectual curiosity, academic ability, social values, and personal resiliency they need to ensure success in school, career, and life. HEAF identifies students in middle school and supports them until they have successfully graduated from four-year colleges through a variety of after-school, Saturday, and summer educational and youth development programs.