Empowering Poughkeepsie’s Youth

by Andrea Suarez Navarro and Jamelia Thompson

School is let out for the day and as a rush of students pile into yellow school buses, their destination is a bit different. This bus is headed to the Poughkeepsie Family Partnership Center, located on 29 North Hamilton Street, where students will be welcomed with vibrant murals of children’s paintings and eager volunteers ready to help.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away on 248 Main Street at Nubian Directions, everyone has gathered around to say their YouthBuild and AmeriCorps pledges. Once the last words have been uttered, begins the opening meetings. Described as “the best way to start the day,” YouthBuild members participate in PullUp discussions. Everyone is sharing and applauding as individuals are recognized for the things they have planned to do and have accomplished. After discussions have ended, everyone makes their way to their scheduled lessons and or trainings.

Each scene captures the essence of a typical day of a young person who participates in a youth enrichment program in Poughkeepsie.

Today the youth of Poughkeepsie encounter several obstacles which often discourage them from envisioning successful paths to the future. In fact, one of the main causes of this issue is the underdeveloped environment that some of these kids and young adults live in. Statistics have shown that 42% of children in Poughkeepsie are living below the poverty level. This misfortune ultimately infringes upon a child’s everyday activities and schooling.

To address this concern, Poughkeepsie has developed various outlets to help revitalize the youth and guide them in building the necessary confidence to redirect their lives.

Two organizations that have managed to achieve this type of success within the Poughkeepsie youth are R.E.A.L Skills Network and Nubian Directions. Both non-profit organizations provide students with resourceful programs that range from Academic Enrichment, Life Skills, and Peer Mentoring to Technical Work and Training programs.

R.E.A.L. Skills Network

The founder and CEO of R.E.A.L Skills Network, Tree Arrington, opened his doors not only to this article’s co-author, Andrea, but thousands of inner-city kids of Poughkeepsie. I took a seat in his office as R.E.A.L. Skills employees walked in and out in a frenzy trying to gather up a plan for the coming days. Despite the lively atmosphere, both Tree and Bettina ‘Gold’ Wilkerson, Administrative Assistant, were able to discuss with me the importance of an organization like theirs, in a city like this one.

R.E.A.L. stands for Relationship Empowerment Affirmation Leadership—the four goals of this non-for-profit organization created as an after school program for at risk students in the Poughkeepsie area. Implementing all sorts of leadership, mentoring, and academic skills in elementary, middle, and high schools was something that Arrington saw a need for.

While they offer programs in different schools around the area, the greatest impact is on the elementary school students. As Arrington described, it is the most underserved group, not failing to mention that “elementary school is a touchpoint for college” as this is the time that students begin to form an academic interest. For this reason, the elementary group is the biggest program REAL Skills has, helping close to 350 kids in that age group per year.

With this in mind, REAL Skills began providing a multitude of after school programs for students, ranging from Academic Retention, Life Skills and Peer Mentoring. These programs function throughout the school year from 3:30 to 5:30 pm serving hundreds of kids, either at the individual schools or at the Family Partnership Center.

The Academic Retention Program offers supportive academic enrichment to younger kids. High school and college students devote their time through volunteer, internships, fieldwork hours, or work study to offer these elementary school students support in completing and understanding their homework. By having these “role models” as support guides the kids are able to develop skills in their academic subjects that they may not have otherwise learned.

Gold recalled a time when this college-to-student homework/help relationship was truly satisfactional. “There was a little boy that was not receptive to reading,” Gold said. “He was dyslexic and unfortunately no one had been able to identify that until our college volunteer, Eliza, noticed.” It was working everyday day on his homework that Eliza realized the boy was dyslexic, and with proper diagnosis they then knew how to help him — making him more attentive to learning in the end.

Alongside academic help, students are also presented with a Life Skills program in which they pick up while working with older student volunteers and mentors. As they spend an hour and a half every day after school with other kids their age they are constantly exposed to self awareness, self esteem, conflict resolution, behavior management, leadership, and public speaking skills. By displaying that peer-mentor role, younger students are able to enhance their skills through everyday activities with their mentors.

A college volunteer playing with the kids on a Friday afternoon.

“R.E.A.L. Skills Network is actually a network; it’s happening on its own.” Arrington said when I questioned the meaning behind the word.

Although the programs are geared towards helping younger students in the Poughkeepsie area, it is serving students from Pre-K all the way through college. “Older students come in wanting to mentor and volunteer, and you see how some of them have never worked with younger kids before, let alone [minority ones],” Arrington said. “And it affects them too.” By having college and high school students mentoring as well they become a part of the program, part of the REAL Skills Network aimed at bettering the education of inner city Poughkeepsie students.

A program that started in Arrington’s living room, R.E.A.L. Skills has managed to generate enough funding to continue helping Poughkeepsie Students free of charge. This first-come, first-serve program is already in full swing as the 2016–2017 school year begins. Arrington, comparing the organization as licorice in a candy store, mentioned it was his civic duty to give back, while Gold simply stated “you do it because you want to see a change in your community.”

Nubian Directions

Development in a community is vital, and like R.E.A.L Skills Network, Robert Wright and his staff at Nubian Directions initiated this change as well.

Nubian Directions offers services which target youths who are between the ages of 16–24 and have strayed away from the support of educational institutions.

“This generation of young people needs guidance. Some of them are left behind and those are the ones driving our statistics. Working with that population is important — it fills a gap,” said Wright, who was a co-founder of the program.

Wright started the organization in 1995 with other members of his family. The name Nubian Directions derived from Wright’s brother-in-law’s interest in African Studies. “Nubian” is rooted in its association with Egyptians of whom were considered progressive people. With this in mind, Wright explained that the intent of building this organization to progress and to be opened all; however, he realized that there was a great need for this service in colored communities.

Services at Nubian Directions offer a space where youths utilize technology training, work readiness skills training and educational support services to build skill sets that enhance their ability to enter, grow, and succeed in the local workforce. Through their YouthBuild Partnership Program youths have access to Employment and Computer Literacy Training, Business Services, HSE Program, Community Computer Lab, and Testing Centers. Such opportunities make it possible for participants to pursue careers in the fields like construction, computer technology or even health care.

Isaiah Hawley and Enola Rijos-Pineiro pictured with Dorothy Stonemason, YouthBuild AmeriCorps Founder.

In a phone interview with Enola Rijos-Pineiro, 18, she willingly shared her experiences and gratitude for Nubian Directions. She joined the program back in July 2014 with the intention of pursuing her GED.

“As a teenager that was at risk of academic probation and being sent away, I don’t know where I would be without this program. It really benefits young people. It helps us stay off the streets because we have something to do. It builds us up and we learn not to take opportunities for granted,” said Rijos-Pineiro.

Through her participation, Rijos-Pineiro has obtained certification and training in CPR, Disaster Training and has gained other skills that have equipped her with the knowledge and attitude to be the best she can be.

Unfortunately, Rijos-Pineiro graduated from the program in July 2016 but she still continues to utilize the new mindset she has adopted outside the program. She admitted that the program had a “huge impact on how she sees herself and what she does.”

Currently she works at the Children’s Museum in Poughkeepsie but has plans to attend Dutchess Community College for two years and then probably transfer to New Paltz fo finish up her degree.

Though Rijos-Pineiro is uncertain of what she wants to study, one thing for sure is that she wants to help others in the way Nubian Directions has helped her.

“I want to give back what was given to me,” she explained.

In addition to equipping youths with career and academic opportunities, another component of Nubian Directions is community development. As YouthBuild students you are also members of AmeriCorps and Rotaract, which drives community service projects. What this means is that not only are youths benefiting their own lives but they are also learning the value of giving back to their community. Previous community service projects that have been done include rebuilding homes for low income families, installing bookshelves and labeling books, cleaning up the streets of Poughkeepsie and gardening.

YouthBuild participants hard at work

Rijos-Pineiro explained that her favorite project was rebuilding homes for low income families. On the phone she expressed to me that, “It was awesome to be able to be a part of that and give someone a home who couldn’t afford one.”

A unique aspect to Nubian Directions’ is their Mental Toughness process. It’s an extensive pre-orientation that goes on for about 4–6 weeks and it strengthens the possibilities of members’ meeting as well as completing the objectives of the program.

Upward Bound and Liberty Partnerships

Wright’s interests and drive to help the youth has always been a part of his life. Some of his previous work includes working with the Beacon school district and involvement in two of Marist College’s programs: Upward Bound and Liberty Partnerships.

Upward Bound was founded in 1966 and is a federally funded program which aims to generate in participants the skills and motivation necessary to complete their secondary education and enter and complete a program of postsecondary education.

The Liberty Partnerships Program (LPP) has been around since 1990 and is a state funded program which provide services to high school students in Kingston and Poughkeepsie. Their services help prepare students to graduate high school and equip them with skills for college or entry into a career.

Though Wright’s prior works involved him working with youths within the educational system, these experiences have only better prepared him to tackle working with youth on the other end of the spectrum.

He expressed that his ultimate vision for Nubian Directions is to reach out to “any community that need services.”

Today some students face obstacles that hinder this process of development. Advancement programs like R.E.A.L Skills and Nubian Directions are providing them with the necessary tools to one day find their own identity and purpose within their community, helping kids and young adults of Poughkeepsie more so each day.