Tuesday, August 7, 2007

TEAK Fellowship Mentor Program

Alex's TEAK graduating class of 2007
By Jake R. Bright           

As a young professional in Manhattan, I have enjoyed myself a great deal on the charity circuit. Attending benefits and serving on committees is a great way to socialize and meet quality people while simultaneously giving to worthy causes and organizations. Still, aside from the fun I’ve had and the money I’ve raised and donated, my most meaningful philanthropic experience by far has been working on the other side of the spectrum, giving time, guidance and friendship to someone who benefits from one of the many non-profit organizations we support here in New York.

For the past four years I have served as a mentor to a teenager in The TEAK Fellowship program. TEAK (www.TEAKfellowship.org) is a not-for profit organization that helps economically disadvantaged but intellectually gifted New York City students gain access to and succeed at top public, parochial, and independent high schools. The organization was formed by Justine Stamen Arrillaga in 1998, named for her close friend Teak Dyer who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1988 when she was 18. It was also founded in memory of Dewitt White, a former student of Justine’s who despite coming from a fractured family plagued by AIDS, homelessness, drugs, and violence, developed an amazing talent for classical piano as a self taught student.

Alex and Jake, summer 2007.
Dewitt’s potential was so apparent that Justine and a number of other educators tried to help him harness his gift. He had many successes and even played at Carnegie Hall; however, without the proper resources, and running up against many hurdles, Dewitt eventually got lost and fell between New York’s cracks.  He was murdered in 1997 at the age of seventeen and in 1998 Justine started TEAK.

The program selects twenty-five 7th graders annually to become TEAK Fellows from a pool of students recommended by their schools. From the summer after 7th grade until graduation from high school, TEAK offers test preparation, tutoring, mentoring, after-school and summer classes, exposure to the arts and outdoors, leadership training, and career experience to its Fellows. TEAK provides students with the tools, support, and equal opportunity they need to compete with their peers and succeed.

As a part of the mentorship program, TEAK mentors and mentees are paired together at a formal ceremony each year. Mentees are generally 13 years old and mentors young professionals in their 20s and 30s. Mentors meet their young student’s entire family and go out to dinner to get acquainted. That brings me to my mentee, Alexander Rico, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate of Fieldston.
Alex being recognized at the TEAK 2007 High School Graduation Dinner and Ceremony.
Alex is of Colombian-Puerto Rican descent and lives with his mother, father and grandmother in Washington Heights. On mentor/mentee induction night, Alex, his family, and I all hit it off from the get-go. Over dinner, we discussed politics, our backgrounds, and the family’s hopes for Alex’s future. One comical exchange from our first meeting was when Alex’s father looked at me with my midwestern upbringing and demeanor and said, “It’s really interesting for us as New Yorkers to meet a normal American.” To which my thought and response was, “It’s really interesting for me as a transplant young professional in Manhattan to meet a real New York family.”

As a mentor, my main goal has been to serve as an additional source of advice and support for Alex, somewhere in between his friends, family, and counselors. Also, I have tried to make sure I expose him to as many dynamic individuals as possible, and let him have some fun. It’s been gratifying and exciting to see how he has grown and developed his interests from the exposure he has had to various friends and acquaintances of mine through social functions and informational interviews.

Alex, Jake, and Mr. and Mrs. Rico at the TEAK 2007 High School Graduation Dinner and Ceremony.
In his early teens, Alex showed an interest in theatre and music, so I set up a lunch with a friend of mine in the music industry. While I originally thought I would have to facilitate a great deal of the discussion, I sat and listened as Alex and my friend had an adult conversation about jazz, Miles Davis, and Broadway.

Alex and I have since attended museums, charity benefits, political panels and fundraisers. We’ve shared meals in many venues, from pizza and soda in rundown campaign offices to dinner at Le Cirque.  He has met one-on-one with Naval officers, bankers, interior designers, artists, and fashion executives, among others. We saw John Fogerty, Dave Matthews, and Alex’s comedic hero, John Leguizamo, at a political concert in spring 2004.

To foster his interest in politics and foreign policy, we spent an entire day going to door-to-door in rural Pennsylvania pitching for one of the presidential campaigns. And Alex was accepted to and participated in The Naval Academy’s Summer Seminar based on his own initiative and the guidance of some of my close friends in the military. We have also focused on networking and interviewing skills for his informational and job interviews and we recently worked with TEAK and his entire family to complete his college application and selection process. 

During TEAK’s Mentor Appreciation Night, Alex and I were chosen to speak. We shared that, above all, as he has gotten older, we have become more like friends than mentor and mentee and that we have grown tremendously from our relationship.

Alex and Jake in Central Park for TEAK's Mentor Mentee sports day, 2003.
I also noted that the entire experience goes beyond just me and Alex. Through him I feel connected to some family structure here in Manhattan when my own family is so far away.

Alex’s family and I stay in frequent contact. His father and I often discuss politics and the history of New York while his mom and I call each other to talk about Alex’s academic plans and general well-being. I often visit for dinners and family events, which frequently allows me to enjoy his grandmother’s Latin cooking. As much as I am able give to Alex, I feel that he and his family have given tremendously to me. Writing our checks for the galas is great; I will continue to do it and encourage others to do so.

Still, I find it equally valuable to donate my time and energy to someone who benefits from the organizations we support, in this case a young individual with much of his future ahead of him. In addition to black ties and gowns, I would urge everyone to volunteer through one of the various opportunities available here in the city and elsewhere.  

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