When Xavier Perez, a college student from Harlem, thinks back to his middle school days, he can’t recall learning much about extracurricular opportunities. “There was information that I wasn’t getting, and probably the people that come after me aren’t getting that same information,” he said.
But he got involved with Harlem RBI, a nonprofit that runs a baseball clinic and a charter school, and his life changed.
“There is a real gap to fill, and that’s where these programs make a difference,” said Perez, who now works as a sex education teacher with the group.
Perez was one of dozens of representatives in Riverbank State Park on Saturday advertising youth groups open to Harlem teenagers at Manhattan Community Board 9’s 4th Youth Resources Expo.
Youth programs are particularly important in the neighborhood as a supplement for a local education that is sometimes lacking, said Yvonne Stennett, a member of CB9’s Youth, Education and Libraries Committee.
“Our schools don’t necessarily have the correct resources, and therefore our young people are not developed in the way that they should be,” she said. “We have to challenge the educational facilities in our neighborhood to do better by our children.”
The organizations represented at the expo ranged from educational groups to cultural and recreational groups.
“We want to make sure that people in the community know what’s out there, and feel that they can access what they need,” Stennett. “It makes such a difference when you put a face to all of the resources that are here.”
Melissa Alvarez, a youth leader for the peer education program The BASE, agreed that the expo is a valuable source of opportunities for young Harlemites.
“In any neighborhood where there’s low income, there’s also a lack of resources,” she said. “This expo is an important way to fight that.”
The number of one-time participants in the various programs who now, as adults, work there served as a testament to that. Jason Berry, a program director of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem, participated in several youth programs as a child.
“They gave me somewhere to go, something to do, peers to interact with,” he said. “Programs like this aim at keeping kids off the street and helping them make good decisions when they’re not in school or when they’re on their own.”
Nazareth Perez, a student from West Harlem, said she was particularly interested in the Literacy Across Harlem initiative of the nonprofit organization Total Equity Now, which encourages residents of Harlem to carry their reading materials outside of their bag on the first day of every month.
“I’m always reading and carrying a book,” she said. “More people need to know about this program.”
Expos like CB9’s are crucial opportunities for young people, said Joe Rogers, a founder of Total Equity Now.
“If kids are disengaged, it’s because we’re not connecting them with the opportunities they need, taking time to say, ‘What are you interested in? I know a program,’” he said. “That’s our job as community members.”
It was an important day for the CB9 Youth, Education and Libraries Committee, which works with schools and other neighborhood institutions to reach out to youth.
“Young people have the will, the power, the ability, we just need to give them access,” Stennett said. “And when you give young people access, most often you’ll see—they run with it.”