If you had asked Joe Horan in February what his summer was going to look like, he wouldn’t have said spending time with 40 Syracuse-area youth in Zoom meetings. However, when his youth mentorship organization, Building Men, was asked to move its life skills training to a virtual program due to COVID-19, he quickly started planning the agenda. Now, that program is taking part in a fellowship that will help the youth that he serves receive critical personal and professional development during the summer months.
This year, 821 Syracuse city middle and high school students are enrolled in the Bea González Summer Fellows program. The participants are up at 9 AM attending classes and spending time with teachers, both virtually and in-person. Each student will receive a stipend of $599 upon completion of the program.
In a typical summer, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance provides funding for summer youth employment. But this year was different. New York State delayed that funding to municipalities due to the financial impact of COVID-19. This spurred Meg O’Connell and Tiffany Lloyd of the Allyn Family Foundation to create a similar program that is privately funded. Several funders, including the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, agreed to participate. When they approached Syracuse University, the Chancellor’s office proposed that the program be named after Bea González, a champion of education and community engagement, in honor of her retirement. The Bea González Summer Fellows Program was “the best retirement gift ever,” according to González.
Each of the organizations involved have different areas of focus. Building Men’s program, entitled Summer of Greatness, touches on various topics such as financial literacy, civic engagement, marketing savvy, job skills, and the 12 Men Model with George Kilpatrick of Vera House. Joe, who has known three of the students since they were in kindergarten, was surprised when the young men resoundingly agreed that they most wanted to learn about checking accounts, maintaining good credit and IRAs. “My hope is that their greatest gain is to use their voices to make a change,” said Horan.
Another participating organization, Syracuse Community Connections welcomes students both in person and virtually for their summer program entitled Higher Standards Summer Camp: Destined to Be Great. Valerie Hill, director of community services, said that their youth participants start with meditation and exercise every morning. “Some of the parents are doing the exercise routine with their kids,” Hill remarked. “People are spending more time with each other because of the pandemic and building bonds that they didn’t have before.”
In addition to its summer programming, the Syracuse Community Connections staff drops off a Communication Box at each scholar’s house once per week. The box includes healthy snacks, bottled water, items for the week’s activities and a Creativity Kit from the Everson Museum of Art. Hill believes that the program is crucial to the health and well-being of the children. “We are giving the scholars an opportunity to talk. So much is going on and no one is asking the kids how they feel. I think they deserve to have more input regarding what’s going on in their lives,” stated Hill.
Bea González’s life story speaks to why she was chosen to represent the program. “My whole career has been about continuing education and watching the ripple effects for students and their families,” said González, who just retired after a nearly four-decade career at Syracuse University.
After moving to Syracuse from Puerto Rico as a child, she participated in many programs such as Syracuse Head Start, Upward Bound and the Neighbor Youth Corps. González served on the Syracuse City School District board and was elected president of the Syracuse Common Council, becoming the first Latinx to hold that position. She began her career at SU as an academic counselor at University College and was eventually named as the dean. Later, she was appointed vice president for community engagement to energize and strengthen the connections between Syracuse University and the greater Syracuse community.
Candace Campbell Jackson, senior vice president and chief of staff to the university’s Chancellor Syverud, said, “We helped the city. We helped the kids. We honored Bea. It was a slam dunk for Syracuse University.”
Funding was provided by the Allyn Family Foundation, Gifford Foundation, Reisman Foundation, John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, Syracuse University, the United Way and a $150,000 grant from the CNY Community Response Fund which includes a partnership of the Central New York Community Foundation, The United Way of Central New York, the Allyn Family Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, Health Foundation for Western & Central New York and the City of Syracuse & Onondaga County. The COVID-19 Community Support Fund was established to support nonprofit organizations working with communities that are disproportionately impacted by economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. To date, the fund has raised over $1.7 million from which vital funding is rapidly deployed to support the region’s greatest needs.
Organizations providing summer programming through the Bea González Summer Fellows Program include Boys and Girl Clubs, Building Men, Coordinated Care Service’s SCORE program, Good Life Youth Foundation, Hillside Children’s Center, Huntington Family Center, I-90 Elite, Le Moyne College, PEACE Inc., Northside Learning Center, People’s AME Zion Church, RISE, Street Addiction Institute, and Syracuse Community Connections.
“Bea González has dedicated her life to creating opportunities for residents of our city, especially through education and learning,” stated Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens. “These summer professional experiences are an investment in ensuring our young people are acquiring employable skills to reshape their communities for equity and human-centered engagement today—not tomorrow. I am grateful to the coalition of funders and community stakeholders that saw the need and proactively created a solution.”