Growing up in Harlem was anything but easy. I felt like everyone around me either sold or used drugs. On my block, everyone looked out for each other and struggled to make the best out of their situations. When I was young, my temper would get me into fights. I did not accept disrespect from anyone and I was taught to never let anyone hit me. After seven years of living in the same neighborhood my dad decided to move.
We moved to a quieter neighborhood, closer to my junior high school. My middle school years were stressful; in addition to living in a new, strange neighborhood, my aunt had died. The new move, the death of a loved one and the feeling of being alone was too much for me to hold in. On top of that, I was being mistreated by other kids at school. I used to be extremely nice and people took advantage of that, so I started joking on kids and disregarding their feelings. The way I saw it, if people never saw my weaknesses, I would be stronger.
In the seventh grade I was assigned to the class of a teacher who has had a huge influence on my life. Her name was Ms. Gavilanes and she taught us manners. We didn't just improve our grades, we excelled. We went from being rude obnoxious kids to respectful young people who helped our peers. Through the Children’s Aid Society afterschool program, some of my classmates and I tutored other kids in our grades during our free time. The program helped several teens who had been “hanging out on the block” to get off the streets and start giving back to their community.
When I graduated to high school, I volunteered to tutor younger kids and assist them with their homework. During my sophomore year, I began working as a junior staff member of the afterschool program and became involved in their Youth Council, a group of teens who work together to try to improve their community. We held can drives, coat drives and a penny harvest, and hosted events to recruit more young adults. We also facilitated workshops for people of all ages on issues our community struggles with, including depression, teen pregnancy, gang violence and peer pressure.
At Christmastime, the Children’s Aid Society hosted an event at which families received gifts. All the teens from Youth Council were touched because they saw how much it meant to their parents to be able to give and receive presents. It made everyone appreciate their parents a lot more and become better people. I know that I changed for the better. I went from being an obnoxious child to a mature young adult. Today, I am working in a job that allows me to help other people and I would not have it any other way. I am proud to be able to make a difference. That would not be possible if it had not been for the Children’s Aid Society afterschool program. This non-profit organization allows teens to get off the streets and make something of themselves. It gives them the chance to move forward with their lives and become successful.
Editor's Note: Mery's afterschool program at Children's Aid Society was the recipient of a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.