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Creating a sense of belonging in New York

In New York City,
1 in 6
young people between 16 and 24 are neither in school nor at work.

Many children who grow up in parts of New York City can face tough odds in their journeys to adulthood and independence. They most likely attend overcrowded public schools where far more students fail than pass. Some lack strong family support and may have experienced abuse and emotional or physical neglect. They live in high-stress neighbourhoods, where poverty, substance abuse, violence and criminal behaviour are commonplace. This can be hard on youth, which is reflected in the figures: according to Good Shepherd Services (GSS), one in six young people between 16 and 24 in New York City are neither in school nor at work.


GSS works directly with communities in New York City. It operates more than 80 programmes which help nearly 30,000 children, youth and families each year. “GSS gives young people who often don’t have opportunities the chance to shine and build lives for themselves,” said Jennifer Zanger, the Brooklyn Division Director of community-based programmes in Red Hook and Gowanus. “That includes them finding satisfying careers, and a sense that they can really impact things in the world.”


Starting out as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1857, GSS has a long history. In its early years it focused on caring for troubled young women and in the early 1970s it broadened its work to provide services to vulnerable families. These include afterschool services, group homes for young people who can no longer live with their families, family counselling centres and schools for teenagers who have fallen behind in regular high schools.


By providing at-risk youth with the support they need, they can build strong connections to their families and other caring adults, to their schools and to their communities. These connections create a powerful sense of belonging. From this foundation, young people are able to tap into their rich potential, overcome challenges and realise their dreams for a better future.



“Every day is a blessing here. Even with the most troublesome kid, it’s still a blessing to know that that kid just wants to be around me and there’s something I can give to that child... it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

- Woody Bien-Aimé Director at Red Hook Community Center Beacon in Brooklyn



Believing in the profound strength of every individual, GSS works with each young person to help him or her identify and build on their inherent abilities.


The staff are passionate about their work. They also all grew up in the communities themselves, so can identify with the children and youth. “If they don’t have us, sometimes they don’t have anyone,” said one GSS teacher. “So there’s not really an option anymore. We have to be there for them.”


GSS offers a “Ladder to Leaders” programme which provides young people the chance to contribute back to their communities by working with GSS, including through paid work during the summer months. It teaches children from a young age how to be successful in life and reach their full potential. “The longevity of service in the GSS afterschool world is quite unique,” said Jennifer. “Often we know our participants from when they are six years old until 25 years later, when they become directors in our programmes.”


“I believe that they love the fact that they can grow up in the programme as participants and then get their first work experience with us,” said Laura Greene, Senior Programme Director at Red Hook. “Participants are always coming back – looking for jobs – as well as just saying thank you, once they are in college. We have a number who participate in the evening centre as a way of giving back to the community that they come from ... so I do believe they enjoy it.”


Over the next five years, GSS will work on deepening services and expanding opportunities for children, youth and families in the high-poverty communities of Red Hook, East New York and Bedford- Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and the central Bronx. Oak Foundation is delighted to be able to support this work.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report


Year of publication: 2015


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Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. With offices in Europe, Africa, India and North America, we make grants to organisations in approximately 40 countries worldwide.

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©2018 Oak Foundation.
All rights reserved.