For the past 38 years, the Roosevelt Island Youth program, headed by Executive Director Charles Defino and Director Aikaterini (Katerina) Drougos, has managed the Youth Center on Roosevelt Island. The group also runs the Beacon afterschool program at PS/IS 217 through a contract with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). Although the two programs are considered separate entities, they often function as a single program.
In fact, Drougos describes the Roosevelt Island Youth Program as one program with multiple funds (RIOC and DYCD). She says the group’s enrichment activities, including soccer and baseball leagues and other Island-wide community events, would not be possible without both sources of funding.
The issue is potentially an important one as RIOC is in the process of deciding whether to renew the group’s contract to run the Island’s Youth Center contract. If the Roosevelt Island Youth Program doesn’t receive a new contract for the Youth Center, but keeps the Beacon contract, Drougos says they would have to completely reorganize and cut back.
Founded in 1979, the Roosevelt Island Youth Program’s mission is to provide free sports, academics, and civic programming to the Island’s youth.
Currently, the group serves 544 kids through the Beacon after-school program, including 58 middle schoolers. The program’s fall soccer league served 440 kids, and 155 currently participate in indoor soccer. Their basketball program has 210 children enrolled and 130 high schoolers participating in their program. Additionally, they have over 290 adult memberships throughout the year.
Drougos joined the Youth Program nine years ago after working with Defino as part of her tenure as president of the PS/IS 217 Parent Teacher Association. She started the same year Principal Mandana Beckman started. “[Principal Beckman] introduced me to Charlie [Defino],” recounts Drougos, “We started working together. We did drama, vocal, drums, we had gymnastics, and chess. We really worked together and had a variety of programs. The PTA paid half and the youth program paid the other half.”
Ultimately, though Drougos’ term as PTA President expired, her interest in providing after-school care to Island youth was piqued: “I wanted more programs and I wanted them under my control.
“When I left the PTA, [Defino] asked me if I wanted to do the programming for the youth program.” She says she’s seen the program evolve and grow throughout the years.
“Charlie is an excellent person,” Drougos says. “He and I always have arguments because I am the one doing the budget,” says Drougos. “Even with the holiday party, I always say, ‘It’s a lot of money, I don’t think we should do it,’ and he says, ‘We have to. The kids love it.’ We aren’t required to do all the programs we do. It’s Charlie. Charlie wants to do it because he likes to see the kids happy. That’s him. That’s why I’ve stayed with him all of these years.”
According to Drougos, Defino is also an excellent fundraiser. She says, “Charlie knows how to get grants, he knows how to fundraise. We get from the State, RIOC, from the speaker [Melissa Mark-Viverito], [Council-Member Ben] Kallos, and the big one, from DYCD.”
Accordingly, Drougos says they have to undergo a big audit every year. “We have to provide every receipt, bank statements, all of the employees’ bank statements, everything,” adding, “It’s a lot of work but I love it.”
In addition to the Island’s soccer, little league, and basketball youth programs, RIYP offers adult programming in the evenings, including yoga and basketball, and they are sponsors of Roosevelt Island Day, the Halloween Parade, and the Tree Lighting Ceremony on the Island. The program consists of 21 employees, a number that does not include the soccer and baseball program’s staff and referees.
High schoolers participate as well. Their offered weekend programming last year for high schoolers included lifeguarding, CPR, drawing, and cooking. Drougos says they had 40 kids. “Do you know how hard it is to get those kids off the street?”
The program’s after-school and summer camp serves 6- to 13-year-olds, and they offer diverse programming encompassing the arts, sports, social development, and academic enrichment. But first, Drougos emphasizes, “The main thing is finish the homework. That’s first. After that, they do the activities. You build the custom and the culture when they’re young. You grow with that in mind,” she says, explaining how each age builds on the teachings of the prior one.
They are currently offering piano and violin as part of the after-school program, or a la carte, like their sports programming. Drougos says, “Now 48 kids are doing violin. A few more are doing piano. We have seven pianos. We are trying to get another piano. If anyone wants to donate a piano, we’re open.” RIYP Piano instructor, Roy Magsisi says, “My classes are small enough, that worst case scenario, we have to double up. And that’s manageable. Anything more than that, we would lose the kids’ [attention].”
They also teach drumming, cooking, and broadcasting. A lot of these activities take place in the Youth Center.
Drougos says, “This year’s goal was to build up our computer room. Now we have 12 computers in the school basement. We have another five coming. We are very excited. We want to get a robotics program started.”
Also in the future is more involvement with the families of their younger kids. Drougos say they already work with the middle school parents. They will soon be starting a life-skills program offered by Amalgamated Bank, as well as a book club.