Elisa Pimentel is starting her third year as the director of the after-school program at PS 89 in Elmhurst, Queens. She oversees a staff of 35 who teach dancing, art, and theme-based learning to 300 children in the afternoons throughout the school year, and during seven weeks of summer. Her students are mainly low-income and working class immigrants who collectively speak at least a dozen languages.
Elisa understands what they are going through. She is from the neighborhood. She attended PS 89 herself. When she was 17 and graduated high school, she started volunteering here in hopes that it would lead to an entry level job as a youth worker. The bet paid off, and within three months she was hired. Since then she put in years of hard work, and went up the ladder with promotions. In 2012 she earned her bachelor’s and is now a NYS certified teacher.
“Working with the kids pushed me to finish school,” Elisa says. “I saw the need. I wanted to help. Being there and teaching them and seeing lightbulbs over their head as they learn and grow. That motivated me.”
Elisa is a poster child for what youth work can do for the individual, the community, and the city. She identifies her background as poor, growing up with immigrant with parents from the Dominican Republic. There were some brutal years, when her father was an alcoholic, and financial aid for college didn’t come through. She had to take a semester off and go to school part-time to save money so she could pay tuition at City College.
“I would be crying the whole day. But then I’d go to work. It gave me peace to come here and work with kids.”
Today she prefers being an after-school director to the original job she thought she’d have. She says classroom teaching is less appealing now due to all the focus on testing.
“I feel like I get a connection to kids that I wouldn’t get as a teacher. After school I feel like kids can relax. It’s not all about testing. They get a chance to talk to us. We teach and help them express themselves. They need a space like that. We also are very close to families who tell us all the time they don’t know what they’d do without us.”