On March 12th, Summer Search NYC had our 2014 Leadership Gala. This is the BIGGEST event of the year for us and its success is critical to providing our programming to help low-income high school students become college graduates and community leaders. At the event this year, we had more than 500 guests including over 80 Summer Search students and alumni and a table of our colleagues, partners and friends from Next Jump. The event raised more than $1.2M for the Summer Search NYC program.
My role at Summer Search NYC is Development Director which means that I oversee all of the fundraising efforts to support our work. While this Gala is a gargantuan team effort - literally all 18 staff are involved in a major way - I feel a lot of responsibility for the success of this event whose revenue accounts for a huge chunk of our annual program budget…which equals lots of late nights in the weeks/months ahead and quite a bit of stress.
So I’ve spent some time talking about the basic facts of the event and the way I’m involved, but I really want to talk about in this post is the impact of the event on me. I have been a staff member at Summer Search since 2008 – 6 years – and I have seen more than 50 students and alumni stand up in front of our community of partners and supporters to tell their Summer Search story. Every single time, I walk away feeling amazed at their courage and inspired by strength and willingness to be vulnerable in order to serve others.
On March 12th in particular, the room was buzzing with a celebratory energy. Soon after the program started, a spotlight danced around the room, shining a light on five of our students as they shared their stories of transformation. One student, Estaphany, emotionally shared her experience as an “onion” with her Summer Search mentor helping her process her different “layers” of past experiences to help her live in the now and focus on the future. In Estephany’s words:
This may sound kind of funny, but because of Summer Search I realized I’m kind of like an onion and prior to Summer Search, I’d never been peeled. I didn’t feel comfortable being me. I kept my secrets and decisions to myself…
[One day after visiting] the Summer Search office every week for SAT prep, I…built up the courage to peel back one of my layers with my mentor. And so, walking into the office one afternoon, I decided..”this is it! Today’s the day…the day I would let someone in!” … Once [my mentor and I] sat down, I immediately began peeling back a layer. What I didn’t expect was for that layer to become several others.
Before I knew it, I was stripped down to my core - with nothing to cover me. A look around the room revealed my layers scattered before me… Seeing my mentor take everything I said, and give it back to me, taught me that I didn’t have to remove my past. Maybe I just have to live with it, but I wouldn’t have to do it alone. Because that’s what Summer Search provides you with. Someone who will help you pick up the pieces and won’t let you go through things alone.
Summer Search is a community that feeds off of the love shared for one another. A place where the only word that matters is now - not the past.
So I end the way I began. As an onion with many layers. I often thought I’d be thrown out if I shared my past. Who wants an onion in a world of better smelling fruit? Well, Summer Search wanted this onion. And I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for them.
As a Senior in high school, Estephany is already an impactful member in her community and I can’t imagine the empathetic and caring leader she will continue to become as she goes onto college in the fall. She has already received acceptance letters from colleges including St. John’s University, SUNY Plattsburgh and Drexel University with more to come.
After dinner, Ja’pheth, the evening’s keynote speaker, took the stage and told us his own story of overcoming obstacles through resilience, altruism, and determination. He asked his own version of this question:
What does it take to transform what a young person believes is possible for themselves? Born and raised in the Bronx, I watched gangs control the street corner, saw people shot by guns. It seemed like I was surrounded by people who weren’t doing anything or going anywhere—a generation repeating the same cycle of violence and apathy instead of breaking it. My future wasn’t about possibilities, it was about survival.
During my sophomore year, my teacher recommended me to Summer Search. My interview was intense. I felt good after because for the first time in my whole life, I let someone in. Over time, by having someone to talk to, I was able to focus more on what I could control, and some of my sadness started to lift. I was so used to being in the city and seeing people of my own race that being with people on my first summer trip from different backgrounds was a huge change. Even the air in Colorado was different! I realized I wasn’t alone and that no matter where we came from, we all had our own problems—it’s the obstacles that stand in your way that help you grow. For my second trip, I taught English to students from preschool through high school in Japan. Here I was a kid from the Bronx teaching kids in a foreign country.
I realized I had so much to offer the world. With few resources and even less opportunity, it’s hard to see that you can do more. Summer Search helped me see that I have the power to shape my future. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and I am forever grateful. There are so many young people in this city like me with promise and drive that just need some extra support. They need you to believe in them.
As his speech concluded, I glanced around the room—everyone on their feet in a standing ovation—at those who’ve supported Ja’pheth since the first day his journey began, and I felt incredibly grateful and honored to be among them. Today, he is a senior at SUNY Plattsburgh, the editor of his school newspaper, and this May he will be the first in his family to graduate from college!
In tears of joy (as I often am at Summer Search events) with my heart swelling out of my chest with feelings of pride for these incredible young people and for being a small part of profound change in our community in NYC, I felt truly exhausted after the months of hard work that went into this moment. But at the same time, I felt refreshed, rejuvenated and inspired. I can’t help but imagine the many other deserving students out there like Ja’pheth, who, regardless of their circumstances, deserve the opportunity to rise to life’s full promise. There is more that I can do to make sure this program impacts more young leaders like Ja’Pheth and Estephany. There is more I can do to spread the word and to make sure more people know about this I glanced over at the Next Jump table. There is more I can do to make sure the educational injustices that these students face in our cities most underserved communities come to an end. Through my tear-filled eyes, I glanced over at the Next Jump table and I could tell that many of them were affected in similar ways to me. In their words:
Crystal Chen, NxJer and Summer Search supporter:
It was a very special privilege to celebrate Summer Search …and the extraordinary youth you mentor - I was so blown away by their courage, maturity and strength. It was really an honor to celebrate their unbelievable accomplishments and hear firsthand the impact Summer Search has had on their lives. I so passionately believe in what we are building and experimenting here at Next Jump, and I am so privileged to have the opportunity to work and learn alongside Summer Search! I left yesterday so energized and with so many ideas about ways I can do more.
Elise Pierpont, NxJer and Summer Search supporter:
I was blown away by the gala. It is amazing to see how strong these kids are - their vulnerability was beyond inspiring. I’m proud to work so closely with Summer Search and was honored to be invited.
Francesca, Ferrante, NxJer and Summer Search supporter:
My biggest take away from the event was the stories the students told. I’m so fortunate to get to sit up front and see students come and go all the time but I think I take for granted how amazing they all are. I was so blown away that the same high school students who often come bouncing off the elevators had such eloquent and powerful words.
It was a great night and I am so grateful that our friends from Next Jump could be a part of it.