When I was four years old, I knew I wanted to be a zookeeper. I remember clearly at my Pre-K in Highbridge, when Ms. Quiñones asked us what we would like to be, I declared “zookeeper.” Zookeepers get to talk to animals. They are reliable and always feed the animals on time. Zookeepers take care of the animals, and they never leave one behind.
In answering that question, I was referring to my favorite book at the time– Sam Who Never Forgets by Eve Rice. Zookeeper Sam makes his feeding rounds throughout the book, and grateful animals say thank you. At one point, Elephant worries for a while that he has been forgotten, as he did not receive any food and Sam is nowhere to be found. Spoiler alert: Sam never forgets.
I don’t believe that I understood then what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not really. But it is interesting that I was already attracted to certain qualities of work, even as a child. In all my four-year-old wisdom, I gathered that I enjoyed caring for others, assisting with the development of others, and that I cared about not leaving anyone behind. And while I crossed zookeeper off my list of career possibilities soon afterwards, those qualities of work remained deep in my core.
That four-year-old was long-forgotten by the time I made my way to Hunts Point in 2006, as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Saint Ignatius School. Like many recent college graduates, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was already questioning whether my chosen undergraduate major, Journalism and Mass Communications, was really what I wanted to focus on professionally. I’d enjoyed my studies, but was I passionate about it? Not the way my four-year-old self was passionate about zoo keeping, in retrospect.
My role as the cofounder of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children was partially serendipitous. In the fall of 2006, representatives from schools and community-based organizations, all of whom had a stake in the Hunts Point community, were gathering at Saint Ignatius School where Maryann Hedaa was the principal. My supervisor, the assistant principal, asked if I would participate in the meeting and take notes on behalf of Saint Ignatius. Eventually, I was writing minutes, preparing presentations, and coordinating logistics, among other tasks. I participated in the groundwork for an emerging nonprofit. It wasn’t planned at all. I was in the right place at the right time, and was being guided by seasoned mentors who believed in my potential. I am eternally grateful for that opportunity.
Over time, some of the initial representatives around the table moved on. I surprised myself when I decided that I would remain in Hunts Point, doing work that I’d had no formal preparation for but to which I felt a strong connection. Much of what followed and drove the decision to dedicate my life’s efforts to Hunts Point for nearly a decade now goes back to the values that called to me when I was a little girl. I am a person who loves to learn and loves school, in all its forms. I am a person who cares for others and loves to help whenever she can. I am proud to say I am from the Bronx, and want to help my community. I don’t forget that it was the teachers and community leaders in the Bronx that nurtured me and made me who I am. And I don’t want to leave anyone behind.
Now when I read that Hunts Point is the highest-risk neighborhood for children in New York City, or that Bronx high school students drop out twice as much as their peers in the New York State, I am momentarily disheartened. But I am also fueled by that knowledge, and it drives me to look for ways to prove that this is not all we are. I know that the schools and community-based organizations around the table at HPAC Alliance meetings are all as dedicated to the children and families of this neighborhood as I am. We are all committed to giving back to the community and working to make sure no one gets left behind. My inner four-year-old thanks the individuals, partner organizations, schools, and all who are invested in the work we do at HPAC. Thank you for being leaders and sharing the vision that education is the opportunity for success, and dedicating your time to make the vision a reality. You remind me every day that this is worthwhile endeavor, and I am grateful for the privilege to join in your efforts.