Two proposals showcase differing visions as both groups attempt to oust longtime operator Roosevelt Island Youth Program.
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation will soon choose an operator for the Youth Center, located at 506 Main Street. The winning applicant will be tasked with providing year-round leadership, educational, recreational, and cultural programs to the Island’s diverse youth population free of charge.
For 38 years, the facility has been run by the Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP), a group headed by Charles Defino, which also runs the Beacon afterschool program at PS/IS 217. RIYP has applied to renew the contract with RIOC. This time around, however, they have competition. Two new applicants are also vying for a shot at the contract: Island Kids and the Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development, known as RICCD.
Island Kids, a longstanding Island organization that started as a toddler and preschool enrichment program, is looking to expand its scope to add high quality programming and support services for middle and high school students, as well as young adults. Their main partner would be the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, one of the largest providers of K-12 school-based after-school programs in New York City.
Meanwhile, RICCD, a relative newcomer to the Island, hopes to persuade RIOC that they can best manage the facility thanks to a board of directors experienced in youth development and programming, philanthropy, and multicultural community development.
At stake is a two-story, approximately 7,000 square foot building and a $200,000 grant.
“We envision the Youth Center as it once was; a safe gathering place for children that prides itself on its diversity and high quality,” says Island Kids Director Nikki Leopold.
Island Kids has as a 23-year history on Roosevelt Island. Their after-school program, in collaboration with PS/IS 217, recently expanded to include children from kindergarten up to third grade. The group also runs a popular summer camp, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary and serves ages 4 through 10, with an emphasis on 4- and 5-year-olds who have limited summer camp options on the Island.
Their vision for the Youth Center is a full community center providing free programming throughout the year. According to Leopold, their focus would be to provide structured recreational programming with a second level of support and education service. The programming would be run by a combination of trained, paid staff and community volunteers skilled in addressing the varying social, emotional and cognitive needs of each age group.
Island Kids’ application emphasizes their commitment to ensuring that their programming reflects the Island’s socioeconomic and racial diversity. The group envisions offering priority registration to children who attend PS/IS 217 and who live on Roosevelt Island, to ensure that free Youth Center programming is targeting the children who are the most economically disadvantaged. Currently, Island Kids offers scholarships to children who would otherwise not be able to participate in their programs, and Leopold says the group is committed to ensuring that their staff is as racially diverse as the makeup of the children on the Island, sending what she sees as an important social message about unity and acceptance.
Also, because their current programming requires licensing by New York City and State, the group is already familiar with the licensing requirements for both Summer Camp and School-Aged Child Care, which are mandatory for the Youth Center program.
Formed in 2014, the Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development is headed by Dan Sadlier, a pastor at the Island’s Hope Church (the two groups are not connected). According to Sadlier, RICCD exists “to equip and empower high-capacity, high-character leaders for the physical, social, and cultural flourishing of Roosevelt Island youth from 4 to 25 years of age.”
Although the group is relatively new, Sadlier says RICCD’s Board of Directors represents decades of public service, philanthropic work, youth development, management, and investment in the community, particularly into youth programming.
RICCD’s application places significant emphasis on training members of the community, including parents, young adults, young professionals, and seniors as volunteers. Sadlier says RICCD will host training sessions to equip their volunteers with foundational practices and skill sets including managing difficult behavior, building community, individualizing programs, and avoiding and de-escalating conflict situations.
“One of the things that makes us distinct is that we have board members with significant expertise and history when it comes to inclusive programming for those with special needs (behavioral, cognitive, and physical),” explains Sadlier.
He sees the board’s experience with start-ups and re-branding efforts as a major advantage in helping the Youth Center overcome some of the public’s negative perception of the Youth Center. “Regardless of who leads the [Youth Center] moving forward, I assume [rebranding] needs to happen as we build trust back within the community and communicate to pools of parents and guardians who have never known about the Youth Center or never knew how to take advantage of it in its subpar state.”
RICCD hopes to partner with RIOC in the much needed renovation of the Youth Center facility. “I have extensive experience managing and maintaining a large youth space back in Detroit,” says Sadlier. “It was over 10,000 square feet. In addition, my team of over 25 staff created and implemented the systems to keep it safe, secure, age-appropriate, and highly compelling to students.” He says over 800 different students took part in the center’s programming each week.
One of the qualifications listed in the RFP is fundraising experience.
Leopold acknowledges that Island Kids has only had moderate success with fundraising in the past, saying efforts have been hampered by their relatively small size and scope. The group does maintain a relationship with TransCanada Corporation, and the Office of Councilmember Ben Kallos, both of whom are long standing financial partners. Funds from RIOC’s public purpose fund help the program provide scholarships for their summer camp.
Leopold believes, however, that receiving the Youth Center contract will increase the group’s appeal to corporate sponsors and foundations. “The Youth Center contract will vastly change our ability to secure funds from corporations and foundations and will also increase discretionary funds available from the City Council.”
According to their application, RICCD President Sadlier has raised over $700,000 from private donors over the past three years for not-for-profit work and has secured significant funding from grants and foundations for past work in inner-city community development. “Though RICCD is new and hasn’t had to raise significant funding, I personally have loads of experience raising funds.” He says he is skilled in crowd-funding and providing the vision and leadership necessary to engage members of the community in philanthropic endeavors.
The current Youth Center operator, The Roosevelt Island Youth Program, also runs the Beacon program at PS/IS 217 for youth and adults which consists of an after-school program, evening and weekend programs for ages 6 through adult, and a summer camp serving 6- to 13-year olds. Unlike the Youth Center, the funding for the Beacon program comes from the the City’s Department of Youth & Community Development, known as DYCD. The Beacon contract is itself scheduled for renewal within the next year. At the moment, however, the two contracts are deeply intertwined.
According to RIYP Director Aikaterini Drougos, separating the two sources of funding and programming – should two different groups be awarded the contracts – would be no easy feat. She says that combining the two grants “gives us the flexibility to serve the numbers [of children and adults] we do, and run all of our extra activities.”
RICCD President Sadlier says his group is prepared to fulfill the group’s mission of training leaders and providing enrichments, regardless of whether they decide to also apply for the Beacon contract. “Investing in leaders who invest in our kids is my favorite part of all this,” says Sadlier. “This is regardless of whether or not we apply for the Beacon. This will also be regardless of whether or not we get the Youth Center bid. RICCD is currently moving forward with all of this.”
Island Kids, however, sees the two programs as necessarily going hand-in-hand. “We feel it necessary to address the Beacon Program, located at PS/IS 217, which is funded through the Department of Youth and Community Development,” the board writes in its proposal. “As we draft this RFP, we are fully aware that there will be a duplication of services between the two entities, which could be resolved if the organization running the Youth Center also has the Beacon contract.” The group says they would have the full support of the administration at PS/IS 217, as well as other community organizations if they take over the Beacon contract as well.
“Ideally, we would like to secure the Beacon Program contract which would provide the full time summer camp and afterschool program that we envision. If not, our goal will be to secure funds that will allow us to run the full time afterschool and summer camp programs out of the Youth Center.”
Middle Schoolers and Teenagers
According to the Island Kids Board of Directors, the lack of youth services for children and young adults aged 11-21 has been a constant concern within the Roosevelt Island community for many years. Island Kids looks to address these issues with a teen lounge, described as a safe gathering place with structured activity options.
To assess needs for these groups, Island Kids says they will conduct a series of focus groups and pilot programs so that the enrichment programs are ones that middle and high school kids will want to participate in. To identify parent concerns, Island Kids will conduct focus groups with parents of kids at this age level.
They cite their close working relationship with PS/IS 217 as critical in developing a strategy on middle school engagement.
RICCD also looks to programming for this population, including leadership training. According to Sadlier “Our focus, passion, and expertise above and beyond early childhood comes with middle school, high school, and young adults. We have strong experience programming for older youth.”
The group’s application describes a community-building approach to engaging with middle schoolers and older kids, where the intent is to pay it forward and inspire and train the young adults to work with the younger population as volunteers and staff. The goal, according to Sadlier, is to not only serve this population with programming, but also to create a community of young adults “who will pour back into our younger students on the Island as volunteers and staff.”
Both groups see the Island’s changing demographics as a motivating factor for taking charge of the Youth Center.
Leopold says her board is “keenly aware of the drastic changes that have taken place on the Island over the years and the social and economic toll this has taken. A chasm exists, where families on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum have become more isolated from one another.”
RICCD’s application acknowledges the challenges in “the rapidly changing demographics of Roosevelt Island and the need to provide accessible programming that engages long-time residents and under-resourced individuals” but also sees potential in the coming changes to capitalize on new opportunities, such as the new Cornell Tech campus, that the changes on the Island have provided.
Sources say the determination will be made at the next RIOC board meeting, scheduled for January 26.