Youth programs – knitting the past to our communities’ future

By Melissa Aase, CEO, University Settlement

When our neighbors get involved with University Settlement, it’s often the beginning of a life-long relationship. I love the generational perspective this gives our organization, which so eloquently demonstrates the power of our approach.

Steve Steinbrecher first started coming to US in the winter of 1948, when he was 15 years old; the following summer, he participated in our summer camp in Beacon, where he met Phyllis Schwartz. In his words, they were “inseparable thereafter,” and their decades-long marriage included the many years Steve chaired our Board of Directors. Although Steve eventually retired and stepped down from the board, he and Phyllis remained deeply involved in many ways, and Steve has been a trusted advisor to me. When Phyllis sadly passed away several years ago, he wanted to do something special to honor her commitment to NYC youth, and in partnership we developed the Phyllis Steinbrecher Fellowships. Every year, this application-based program identifies five deeply engaged participants in University Settlement’s youth development programs, who we then hire onto our team as after-school counselors.

Steve’s support for this program gives us the rare opportunity to pay selected young people who are deeply involved in our communities, giving them “next step” work experience that builds social capital, work experience, and connections. We know that when students are empowered to share their talent in a supportive, caring environment it can help build confidence and self-worth while setting up a pathway towards future goals.

I had the opportunity to check in about the program with Lizzie, one of our terrific fellows this summer. As her supervisor Whittney Barnes says, Lizzie, “never hesitated to step in: she took initiative, made things fun, and always brought the right energy to make people want to explore their creativity.”

I’ve been participating in Beacon since the sixth grade, and I’m just starting 11th grade this month.

I started crocheting at the beginning of the pandemic – because there was so much free time. I mostly learned online, from videos and tutorials.

When my advisors at Beacon invited me to apply to the Phyllis Fellowship, I thought that teaching young people how to crochet would be really fun.

When you show a student a crocheted project that’s already done, they look at it and think it would be impossible for them to complete something like that. And it’s really exciting to see them realize that it’s not impossible, as they start learning how to do it.

This summer I learned how to be a better teacher, and the young people in our program also pushed me creatively.

One student wanted to make a dinosaur, so I figured out how to do it myself so I could teach it to him, and we made a little chubby dinosaur.

Participating in the Fellowship will help me achieve my goals in a lot of ways. It’s improved my people skills; I’ve learned how to be less socially awkward when meeting new people. That will help me in the future with job interviews and networking. And I’m excited to apply for programs like the Fellowship going forward!

As Whittney notes, “We’re able to do our best work when we’re able to develop leaders, like Lizzie, from within our communities. And we’re confident that Lizzie’s work with us this summer will be directly applicable as she takes her next steps toward finishing high school and achieving her dreams.”

In this way, Phyllis and Steve’s story comes full circle – their love for one another, and for their community, lives on by creating opportunities for a new generation of young people on the Lower East Side.

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