Lessons in Self Empowerment
Staff members like Laressa are critical to advancing our mission. At HCZ, we believe college is the primary means of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. That’s why we provide community-responsive and wraparound youth programs like ETC that prepare our kids to get into and succeed in college.
One of the most important lessons we impart is self-empowerment. While stressful, Laressa’s college application nightmare helped shape her approach as a college coordinator. At the time, she advocated for herself. Now, she’s teaching her students to do the same.
“I’m proud to see my students take responsibility for their choices and make changes in their best interests,” she says.
Community of Support
But while it’s important to advocate for yourself, it’s also important to have a community advocating for you. After relocating to Brooklyn from Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake in the country, Laressa was taken in by her uncle and enrolled in the school where he taught.
“I didn’t get time to process everything,” she says. “It was an earthquake, then moving, then a new school, and then a new language.”
To get acclimated, she built on the conversational English she learned in Haiti. Through persistence (she studied diligently and honed her language skills with episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and the support of those around her (her French and Creole-speaking classmates helped her with English translations and teachers sometimes let her take tests in French), she eventually became fluent in English.
College is Only the First Step
Now, Laressa is helping to lead a similar village of support at Harlem Children’s Zone’s ETC. She loves celebrating her students’ successes, pausing the music that pumps through the ETC building to announce a student’s college acceptance over the loudspeaker.
“[The students] try to act all cool and not get embarrassed,” Laressa laughs. “But I know they’re proud. We’re proud of them, too.”
It’s a huge milestone. Still, Laressa reminds her students that getting into college is only the first step.
“Then you need financial aid, letters of recommendation,” she says. “I remind my students, ‘We have a lot of work left to do!’