Sunday, October 21, 2007

New York Cares

No, I'm not referencing Interpol, I'm talking about the volunteer organization here in NYC. Yesterday was New York Cares day. I was one of 6,000 or so volunteers to go to designated schools around the 5 boroughs and help paint, garden, etc. I've been trying to get more involved with helping out, but I wasn't expecting what I was thrown into.

My friend, Gloria, was in charge of one of the groups for the day. I knew I was going to have to trek to some school in the East New York section of Brooklyn. From all I know about this neighborhood (from the news, etc) is that there would be a good chance that I'd be shot on my way from the subway to the school, but to my surprise, the neighborhood was very well kept and clean. I was running a little late and missed to group of people who were walking as a group from the subway. It was about a 10-15 minute walk to the school, and I got a few, "Hey, Baby" comments, but I try to react with a laugh or at least an acknowledgment, especially when I am out of my element, and I've never had a problem. So, I make it to the school, check in, and wait for a bit. The vice principal of the school comes in to welcome us and explain the school. (what?) We had been told ahead of time to not bring bags and that our cell phones would have to be locked up, but I thought that maybe the rules were really strict. No, that was not the case. The school that we were assigned to is basically a prison!! It's a juvenile detention facility that is also a school. The kids live there, and their crimes range from very minor offenses to very serious ones. Ok.... We were told that they would be walking around the hallways, and to not acknowledge them.

I was put on the mural painting projects, so we were in the hallways of the school. It was rather claustrophobic because ALL doors were locked at ALL times. If we needed to get out of the hallway to go to the restroom or something, we had to be escorted by one of the teachers with keys to the doors. And as we were told, groups of the kids came by wearing their prison scrub outfits. They are escorted around by two teachers--one if front and one in back of the line the kids have to walk in. They have to walk with theier hands behind their backs as if they are cuffed. They look like they're in a chain gang. It was really sad because some of these kids looked like they were 12 years old!!!!

Later on I was transferred to a mural down in the girls' section. Right now there are only 9 girls at the facility. There are a ton of boys! Needless to say, it was a real eye-opener. While down there we were talking to one of the teachers who told us that the average stay at the facility is about 30 days, but there were some kids who had been there 2 years. And at one point, two security guards went racing through the hallway because something was up. The teachers told us to stand back, but laughed and said, "the kids can't behave for even one day?" I really admire these people who work with incarcerated kids (that's how they defined them). They all seemed to be the nicest, most genuine people, and they were so appreciative and thankful for our work.

It was an exhausting day, but it was really worth it!

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