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Media of the Month: Destination: Princeton University for WIOA Participants

By Michelle London
Program Director, WIOA Learn & Earn

On March 1, participants of The Child Center’s WIOA Learn & Earn Program had a wonderful opportunity to visit Princeton University, thanks to the generosity of Child Center supporter Ken Jones. The WIOA program works with youth from low-income families to strengthen their academic skills, as well as their readiness for higher education and the workforce.

In advance of the Princeton trip, we tasked each young person to maintain passing grades in their classes and 90% attendance in school and workshops all the way to February. We were impressed that 41 out of 68 WIOA participants met the requirements, signed up, and went on the trip.

Students were given a folder containing a pre-survey to complete before the trip and examples of questions to ask during the tour. The folder also included information about Princeton University and the different majors the school offers. The survey included questions such as “What are you hoping to learn from this tour?” and “What are your top priorities when choosing a college?”

By the time we arrived, the students were eager to learn about the school’s culture, history, academic programs, and campus life. They split into two groups to ensure all students could ask questions and get the full Princeton experience. The tour guides were warm and generous in their answers. They showed the students many aspects of the campus, including the libraries, dorms, classrooms, and athletic facilities. They also shared exciting stories about the school’s history, student life, sports, superstitions, and majors, which helped the students understand what college life would be like at Princeton. They also talked about the tuition fees and financial aid available.

In addition to a traditional tour, the students participated in a scavenger hunt, which gave them an exciting, fun, and hands-on way to learn more about university life. They took pictures in front of various buildings and completed challenges to learn more about the school. They also participated in an “interview 101” with current students. They had a great time and were excited to share their experiences with their peers!

After the tour, we stopped for lunch and talked about what they learned. It was heartening and inspiring to hear the excitement in their voices. Everything my team does at WIOA is to prepare our scholars for the next chapter. We want them to know that college is not just something other people do—it is something they can do. This visit to Princeton drove that message home for them, and I could see the sense of hope in their faces and hear it in their words. I hope that you see it, too, in this collage that has the honor of being this month’s Media of the Month!

A post-tour survey allowed scholars to reflect on their experiences and share their thoughts on the visit. They put a lot of thought into it and clearly left feeling inspired and motivated to pursue their academic goals.

On behalf of all of us at WIOA, I extend my deepest thanks to Ken Jones for sponsoring this trip and opening up a whole new world for our WIOA youth! Child Center supporters play an invaluable role in ensuring our students have access to the experience and opportunities all young people deserve.

National Social Work Month: Q&A with Gerda Gonzalez, LMSW, School-Based Clinical Coordinator

Gerda Gonzalez, a social worker at the school-based mental health center at Pam American International High School, presents at a CIOB event on self-harm.
Gerda Gonzalez, a social worker at the school-based mental health center at Pam American International High School, presents at a CIOB event on self-harm.

Gerda presenting at the Consortium, Internationals, and NYC Outward Bound (CIOB) Schools counseling meeting last month.

The road Gerda Gonzalez, LMSW, took professionally to become a social worker was not a straight path, but today, she’s confident it led her to the right destination.

Gerda serves as school-based clinical coordinator at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens. She manages the school’s mental health wellness center and also sees clients in therapy.

The Child Center of NY provides school-based mental health (SBMH) services at 11 NYC public schools. In-school counseling programs overcome common barriers to mental health treatment by offering services to young people in the convenient space of their schools. The Child Center’s SBMH programs operate on three levels: mental health educational services to the entire school community, selective services with children who might be at risk, and targeted services in the form of therapy.

Pan American International High School is home to students who have immigrated to the United States within the past four years. As a first-generation American who lived outside the U.S. for part of her childhood, Gerda understands the challenges and traumas young people face when they arrive in a new country with an unfamiliar culture and language. In honor of Social Work Month, we asked Gerda about the role social work plays in easing the transition for these young immigrants so they can develop positive coping strategies and flourish.

The Child Center of NY: You told us you never intended to become a social worker. How did that happen?

 Gerda Gonzalez, LMSW: Both of my parents are immigrants. My mother is from Bolivia, and my father is from Spain. Spanish was the only language spoken in my home growing up. I started first grade here in the U.S., but I grew up for some years in Spain and returned to the U.S. when I was in 10th grade. When it was time to choose a career path, I knew I wanted to help kids that age, so I became an English teacher. I taught ninth and 10th grade English for two years. I realized I didn’t like the teaching aspect as much as I liked interacting with students and supporting them with their emotional needs. A lot of them would come to me and tell me what they were going through, and I didn’t have the skills to support them. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do: become a social worker.

What led you to The Child Center?

I got an internship with Yessenia Rodriguez at The Child Center’s old Elmhurst Clinic. This was in March 2020—right at the beginning of the [COVID-19] pandemic! But mental health services are considered essential, so the work of the clinic never stopped. I worked with families with children ages 0-5. We did a lot of work around providing guidance to parents so they could develop their parenting skills and best support their kids. When I completed the internship, Yessenia was like, I don’t want The Child Center to lose you! She was transitioning to the perinatal program. Since it was new, there weren’t any positions available, but Yessenia alerted me to openings elsewhere at The Child Center. Due to my background as a teacher and first-generation American, I applied for a school-based mental health position at Pan American. That was in January 2021, and I’ve been here ever since!

What kind of mental health issues are you seeing at your school?

The population I work with is mostly students who have been in the U.S. for less than 4 years. I can kind of put myself in their position. Coming to a new country in the middle of high school is a big transition. There is definitely immigration trauma. Students often come from really difficult circumstances, left family behind who they really loved, and are in a completely new environment. All of those pieces create a cluster of trauma. Here, there is an individualistic approach that is unfamiliar to people from Central and South America, where the culture is more about the group, everyone working together, supporting each other. Here it’s more about doing things on your own and what you can accomplish individually. For example, in the countries they come from, you get eggs from your aunt, milk from a neighbor … everyone helps each other out. When families come here, they have to get used to everything being more separate.

Of course, there is also the language issue. All students at Pan American speak Spanish and learn English as they go through high school. I provide therapy in both languages. In therapy, you want to be comfortable, you don’t want language to be a barrier, so usually sessions are in Spanish. But by 12th grade, some students choose to have sessions in English.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of self-harm. During the pandemic, and now from the effects of the pandemic, there has been a lot of depression and risk of suicide. With time, I’m seeing more anxiety and self-harm. Students often don’t know how to manage their emotions. Self-harm is their coping strategy. It’s easier to think about negative coping strategies than positive ones. It’s quicker, you immediately feel relief, and so you end up resorting to that instead of trying positive methods, which they may not be aware of since they are not as popular in the media and other aspects of their life.

What are some positive coping strategies you help students develop?

Deep breathing exercises, art as a medium, going for a walk, exercising, creating positive self-talk … even writing on a sticker, “You’ve got this today!” can help shape your day and manage your emotions. Journaling is another great strategy. When students feel overwhelmed, I help them create a list—seeing it in writing makes it easier for them to understand how to shape their day—and understand time management.

You recently presented on self-harm at the Consortium, Internationals, and Outward Bound (CIOB) Schools counseling support meeting. Please tell us about it!

The meeting was for social workers and counselors to discuss building a culture of prevention and how to support students who are self-harming. I do presentations here at Pan American—it’s part of the work I do here as lead clinical coordinator. So when Tania Romero, supervisor of social workers at CIOB schools, needed speakers for the event, my colleague Karla Pina, a social worker on the school guidance team, said, “I thought of you immediately!” I said yes because I see so much of it [self-harm].

I think it went well. I was able to present to school social workers and guidance team members from more than 15 different schools in the NYC area, so that was very exciting. It was a great opportunity to talk about self-harm; there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings around it. For example, there is a myth that students who self-harm are suicidal, but that’s not always the case. Many don’t want to die; they are self-harming so as not to get to that point. They are more at risk to consider suicide, but they still have hope, which is important to highlight, and to work from.

Can you talk about a particularly memorable or rewarding experience as a social worker?

Of course, there’s Breinny! There is also a student I started working with when he was in 10th grade. He was from Colombia, from a town full of gang violence. When he came here, he had a survival mentality because of what he faced in his home country. His anxiety was very bad; he struggled to sit still and experienced panic attacks. He didn’t care about his classes or studying; he wanted to leave school and start working so he could help his grandma, still in Colombia, financially.

We worked together until he graduated last year. He learned to manage his anxiety very well—I say “manage” because anxiety never goes away, you just learn how to manage it—so that it no longer affected his day-to-day activities. He also started realizing goals he had for himself. He realized he loved photography. I encouraged him to think about what it would look like if he studied, the possibilities that could give him for the future. That helped him with the motivation piece. He was very bright, but he didn’t know how to use his intelligence in a way that benefited him. I connected him to resources at school—one of the wonderful things about Pan American is all the resources to support students!—to help him with his classes. He put in the effort and got his grades up. I encouraged him to apply to college. One of the schools he was interested in was FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], for fashion photography. It seemed like a great fit. He got in, and he’s at FIT right now!

That is wonderful! It really speaks to the rewards of social work. As we all know, there are also challenges. What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a social worker?

For me, one of the biggest challenges is wanting to be able to do more and just not being able to, due to time constraints and limited availability. We have a waitlist for students, and it weighs on me. I would love to be able to service them all, but I know that I cannot take on more clients with my current caseload. As a whole, I believe that some of the struggles of being a social worker, in general, center around wanting more resources for your clients than what is available.

Are you glad you became a social worker?

Yes, I’m very glad! Through the work I am doing—even if it is on a micro level—I am making a difference for my clients and their families. As the daughter of immigrants, being able to work with adolescents who recently arrived in the country fills me with purpose and hope that we all are continuing to work toward creating a healthier environment for everyone in New York City. Aside from this, the time I have spent being a social worker also has helped me to reflect on myself and my own identity in a way that I might not have been able to do otherwise—especially as a first generation American.

Creative Arts at The Child Center Residential Treatment Facility

The Child Center Residential Treatment Facility is a place for youth who have had multiple psychiatric hospital stays and youth with both psychiatric disorders and juvenile justice involvement. It is also a place where young people who have had a rough start find their way to a bright path. Residents at the RTF learn positive coping strategies through which they realize a strength they never knew they were capable of, discover talents they didn’t know they had, and begin to envision and plan for a future based on both those things. For many residents, the RTF’s creative and therapeutic arts programming plays a vital role in their journey. Watch this video, produced by the RTF’s creative arts team—including the young people—to learn more and see the breathtaking, extraordinary art that has come out of this program.

Photo of the Month: Happy National Women Physicians Day!

Dr. Brown of Strong Children Wellness with a client at The Child Center's Jamaica Family Wellness Center, on National Women Physicians Day

Dr. Suzette Brown and a client at The Child Center of NY’s Jamaica Family Wellness Center

February 3 was National Women Physicians Day, which provides the perfect opportunity to spotlight Drs. Omolara Uwemedimo, Nicole Brown, and Suzette Brown, whose primary care practice Strong Children Wellness supports healthy families in our communities!

National Women Physicians Day honors the pioneering achievements and ongoing contributions of female physicians in the field of health care. It is symbolically held each year on the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. That was in 1849. Today, 175 years later, we know that representation in medicine matters. Studies show that having a diverse workforce in health care improves outcomes and makes patients feel respected, comfortable, and valued. It is an avenue through which patients can feel reassured that they are receiving the very best care.

The physicians at Strong Children Wellness (SCW) epitomize the noble tradition begun by Elizabeth Blackwell and the gift that is diversity in health care.

Comprised of three women doctors, SCW partners with trusted community-based organizations (CBOs) to integrate primary care services into their wide array of existing support services and programs. Through this unique approach, families have access to a personalized, multidisciplinary care team that addresses physical, developmental, emotional, and social needs—right in a client’s own community or through virtual visits.

The Child Center of NY is proud to be one of Strong Children Wellness’ partner CBOs. SCW has provided care to more than 300 Child Center clients since our partnership began in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when health care for our clients was hard to come by. The partnership has helped an increasing number of our clients receive regular care ever since. The doctors see patients in our Jamaica Family Wellness Center and in our Macari Family Wellness Center in Flushing. We are planning to open a third site for SCW visits at our Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside this year.

“As pediatricians, we are often the first to care for children and families with medical and mental health issues, and identify social needs such as food insecurity and homelessness,” Dr. Nicole Brown, SCW’s chief health officer and pediatrician, explains. “Many families face the challenge of navigating complex medical, mental health, and social systems with little support, and receive care that is fragmented and poorly coordinated. SCW’s partnership with The Child Center has transformed the way we practice medicine. We are able to collaborate closely with staff across The Child Center’s many programs to deliver comprehensive care that addresses medical, behavioral, developmental, and social needs. Our partnership has created a ‘village’ of support for families as their children grow. Care is delivered in one setting, creating a ‘one-stop shop’ of services. This has significantly improved access to care for the families we mutually serve.”

Visit the Strong Children Wellness website to schedule an appointment or to learn more!

Eudora’s Story

Eudora is a participant of The Child Center of NY’s Cash+Community Works (C+C), a groundbreaking neighborhood-based initiative that invests in under-resourced families, trusts them with power, and connects them with peers so they all can rise together. C+C works on the premise that families are the experts on what they need to achieve their goals, and our job is to act as investors, advocates, and partners.

At The Child Center’s 70th anniversary gala, Eudora spoke powerfully about her experience as a promising entrepreneur. Watch the above clip to see how she was able to start a marketable business through C+C—and pay it forward.

January Photo of the Month: MLK Day Every Day

Participants of the Beacon Program at M.S. 226 celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service

Participants of the Beacon Program at M.S. 226 celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service (MLK Day) Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is an important day at The Child Center of NY. Programs across the organization mark the observance in unique ways that are meaningful to them.

One of those programs is our Beacon at M.S. 226 in South Ozone Park, Queens. The Child Center operates four Beacon programs, which are school-based community centers that offer year-round recreational and learning opportunities for children and adults. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, our Beacon M.S. 226 elementary school students created MLK portraits, which you can see them proudly hold up in this month’s photo of the month.

In an accompanying discussion with Group Leader Vare McNeil, participants talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. They spoke about what the themes of the speech mean to them. Participants agreed that, as fourth-grade student Amisha said, “No one should be mistreated because of their skin color.” They also talked about another core part of Dr. King’s character, which was the importance of always making sure you are “doing for others,” which is a core principle of The Child Center.

“The ideals that Dr. King stood for are the ideals we strive for every day: equity, kindness, service, and excellence,” says M.S. 226 Beacon Director Ronell John.

Ronell says he strives both to impart these values to his students and to live them himself. Citing another famous quote by the great civil rights leader, Ronell says, “’If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ I walk into my program with this mindset because I want my participants and members of my team to know that I care about them and the work that I do. I try to model that dedication for our participants. They all have gifts and have so much to give to their communities. The participants and team members I am privileged to work with bring pride and honor to Dr. King’s memory.”

December Photo of the Month: Holiday Wishes Do Come True!

Bishop, 5, a participant in the afterschool program at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center, is delighted to receive a plushy toy, courtesy of the Child Center holiday toy drive.

Bishop, 5, a participant in the afterschool program at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center, is delighted to receive a plushy toy, courtesy of the Child Center holiday toy drive.Bishop, 5, just started his first year at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center in Rockaway Beach, Queens. He was so excited to receive plushies as his gift through The Child Center of NY’s Holiday Toy Drive because “plushies are my favorite toy!”

Every year, The Child Center organizes a holiday toy drive for families for whom the holidays mean deciding between putting food on the table or providing a gift for their children. The Child Center Holiday Toy Drive aims to bridge the gap and bring unexpected joy to our families by offering new, unwrapped toys during this special time of year. Every dollar donated goes toward purchasing gifts. The impact of this generosity reaches beyond the tangible presents—it’s about restoring confidence and dignity to families who can create cherished memories for their children.

Krystle Raghubeer, the Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center’s director, states that all the kids were excited to receive the presents that they had wished for. Thank you to everyone who donated to the toy drive and made dreams come true this holiday season for children like Bishop!

While the toy drive made Bishop’s dream come true for the holidays, Krystle and her dedicated team at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center work hard every day to ensure dreams that Bishop doesn’t even know he has yet can come true when he gets older. That’s because Cornerstone programs, funded by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development and supported by our generous donors, offer children a safe and fun place, right in their own neighborhood, where they can continue to learn after the school bell rings and engage in enrichment opportunities, from STEM to the arts, that allow them to explore their strengths and discover all they are capable of. Cornerstones are open to the whole community so that members of any age can learn, grow, and build community. What a gift for the new year!

Editor’s Note: While our Holiday Toy Drive has ended, you still can support children like Bishop in making their dreams come true by donating to support our programming. Every dollar counts, and we will put all gifts right to work!

Hilaria’s Story

Like most parents, Hilaria would do anything for her child. She wanted her son, now 3, to be able to go as far as his abilities could take him—but, being in a new country, not speaking the language, she didn’t know how or where to start. Navigating the education system was daunting, and she didn’t understand what she was expected to do.

Thankfully, friends and family referred her to The Child Center of NY’s Early Head Start Corona program. Here, she is getting the bright start she wanted for her son. Like all Child Center families, she’s also getting so much more, including support for herself so she can pursue her own goals—which, in turn, increases her ability to raise her son so he can thrive.

Here is Hilaria’s story in her own words, in her native language.

English version

“Desde que nació mi hijo, quise lo mejor para él. Pero es difícil darle a su hijo lo que necesita cuando no se sabe lo que es. Esta fue la situación en la que me encontré cuando emigré a este pais. Nuestra vida familiar no era la mejor, y yo no sabía nada sobre el sistema educativo. Estoy muy contenta de haber encontrado The Child Center. La gente de allí me ayudó con todas estas cosas.

The Child Center ha sido especialmente útil para mí en mi papel como padre. Gracias a los servicios de visitas domiciliarias, he aprendido a ser una madre cariñosa.

“I encouraged Hilaria to get mental health services. At first, she didn’t know what that was. I explained to her the process and benefits. She was comfortable with me because she and her son were in ParentChild+, where I was their home visitor. They received toys and books every week. The age-appropriate activities and the guidance I offered helped her interact better with her son and build a relationship with him. These activities are preparing him for 3K. Hilaria is always engaged as a parent, no matter the challenges.”
—Judith Leon
Home Visitor

Ahora entiendo la importancia de compartir más tiempo con mi hijo y hacer actividades juntos. Este programa le ha enseñado a mi hijo los números del 1 al 10, los colores y las letras. Mi hijo listo para comenzar el programa 3-K [programa preescolar para niños de 3 años], y me siento orgullosa de saber que ya sabe algunas de las cosas que aprenderá en la escuela. Todos los servicios que este programa le ha brindado a mi hijo han sido útiles para su educación futura.
Espero aprender más sobre su educación. Como padre, tengo algunas metas para él, como ponerlo en una escuela de música y programas deportivos. También tengo metas para mí. Ahora que mi hijo asiste a la escuela, tendré más tiempo para lograrlos. Recientemente he logrado mi objetivo de encontrar empleo. Estoy vendiendo comida preparada por mi. En el futuro, me gustaría tomar clases de GED y ESL.

Estoy muy contenta de que la gente me haya referido al Centro Infantil. Si alguien acude a mí con preguntas sobre la educación de su hijo, al igual que yo acudí a las personas en mi vida en busca de consejo y orientación, les diria que no lo piensen dos veces ya que en este programa sus hijos comenzarán a aprender a una edad temprana y estarán listos para la escuela cuando cumplan tres años. Además, nosotros, como padres, aprenderemos sobre las áreas de desarrollo, cómo establecer metas y cómo crear rutinas; esto se enseña en un grupo llamado Grupo de Socialización que ofrece este programa.

“Most families who experience what this family experienced are hesitant to open up. This family was a bit difficult to connect with, and to ensure they understood the dynamics and purpose of therapy. Still, finally, we were able to offer therapy for the mom and child. During the process, I offered the mom emotional support, as well as connections like Safe Horizon for support groups and services like SNAP benefits [food stamps]. I reminded her of appointments and checked in with her about changes so I could collaborate with her for a solution.”
–Maria Leal, Parent Peer Advocate, 0-3 Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative

Recomiendo este programa a las familias que tienen niños menores de tres años porque los servicios que brindan son únicos en la comunidad. Los programas de calidad para la primera infancia para niños menores de 3 años son difíciles de encontrar en mi área. Agradezco que las personas que trabajan en Early Head Start dThe Child Center entienden y hablen mi idioma. Y aunque no sabía esto cuando inscribí a mi hijo, The Child Center ofrece muchos más servicios de los que usted busca, y eso es realmente único y útil más allá de toda medida.”

The Child Center of NY: One-Stop Shop

At The Child Center, we understand that serving the whole child, family, and community is integral to serving children. But when you live below the poverty line, seemingly small things, like taking time off from work and traveling to multiple sites for services in a language you don’t understand, are huge barriers to care. That’s why we put our understanding into practice by serving multiple needs under one roof, right in the neighborhoods where our clients live.

Here’s how it worked for Hilaria. Click on the blue links for quotes from the team members who assisted Hilaria and orange links for program information.

Photo of the Month: Lights On Afterschool and Mental Health at Roosevelt Island Beacon

During Lights On Afterschool, Roosevelt Island Beacon staff wore their Kinder, Braver Together hats

On October 26, two of The Child Center of NY’s founding principles came together in a beautiful way at our Roosevelt Island Beacon at P.S./I.S. 217 in Manhattan. Staff and students celebrated Lights On Afterschool to shine a spotlight on afterschool programs while participating in the “Kinder, Braver Together” campaign, a partnership between The Child Center and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to raise mental health awareness. This month’s Photo of the Month collage tells the story!

The Child Center began in 1953 as a single children’s counseling center, and a commitment to mental health remains at the heart of everything we do—from offering therapy at our wellness centers and at schools to embedding mental health in our early childhood education and afterschool programs.

That’s why we are so excited to announce that The Child Center is partnering with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and jack.org to make a profound impact on youth mental health. A key priority is to have as many people as possible obtain the Be There Certificate, which teaches the public to recognize when someone might be struggling with their mental health and how to safely support them while maintaining their own mental health. The Be There Certificate is a free, self-paced, interactive online course designed for young people but accessible to all.

The Child Center is committed to having all of our staff and community obtain the Be There Certificate. The Roosevelt Island Beacon team was among the first to earn their certificates, and we think they are rocking the “Kinder, Braver Together” hats they earned as a result!

The team proudly wore their hats during the program’s Lights On Afterschool event last Thursday (center photo in the collage above). Launched in 2000 by the Afterschool Alliance, Lights On Afterschool celebrates afterschool programs and their important role in the lives of children, families, and communities. The Child Center operates more than 20 such programs, and each year they join the national Lights On Afterschool effort to draw attention to the many ways they support students by offering them opportunities to learn new things—such as dance, robotics, and community service—and discover new skills. The events send a powerful message that millions more kids need quality afterschool programs.

This year’s Lights On event at Roosevelt Island Beacon was a collaboration between The Child Center and Youth Center, another afterschool program on the island.

“We came together to show the community the importance of afterschool programs and how integral they are to a young child. All the projects we showcased were created by the participants in both programs and featured the theme of lights,” Program Director Ricardo Turenne explains. “The students also spoke about how afterschool has helped them. They spoke eloquently and from the heart about how they have pursued their interests, formed friendships, got academic support to succeed in school, and discovered strengths they didn’t even know they had. It was inspiring. This is why we do what we do.”

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