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Family Builds a Bright Future at Harlem Children’s Zone

Girl smiling next to school lockers
Above: Sametchie Samssi, 8, at school at Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy.

Mariam, as a new mom, learned the ins and outs of early childhood development and how to raise her kids in a safe, healthy home.

Sametchie, her daughter, became a math whiz and budding nutritionist who taught her family about healthy eating. 

Yaya, her son, discovered a passion for chess and made plans to go to college while inspiring his younger sister to do the same.

When the pandemic hit, Harlem Children’s Zone was in their corner — and the family continued to thrive.

This is what it’s like to build a bright future at Harlem Children’s Zone. Through our comprehensive, neighborhood-based model, we empower children and parents at every stage of life.

Here’s the story of the Diaby/Samassi family — a story of the resilience of our community and the power of our model.

Power of our model

To understand our approach to serving families, get to know the Diaby/Samassi family. 

Their Harlem Children’s Zone journey began 15 years ago at our landmark program, Baby College. There, Mariam, a new mother at the time, learned best practices for meaningful interactions with her children. Next, Mariam and Yaya, then a toddler, took part in Three-Year-Old Journey. In the program, Miriam forged relationships with other parents while Yaya made friends playing with other kids. Then, Yaya and later, Sametchie, enrolled in our Harlem Gems preschool program — setting them up for success in school through literacy, math, and social emotional learning.

After Gems, it was onto Promise Academy, our premier K-12 charter schools. Mariam had heard good things about Promise from her sister, who had enrolled her kids in the school. 

“There was never any question that I would send Yaya and Sametchie there, too,” Mariam says.


Thriving at Promise

At Promise, Yaya and Sametchie thrived. Yaya fell in love with chess in third grade, playing in our after-school programs before joining the chess club in middle school and competing in tournaments. Meanwhile, Sametchie discovered her passion for math and English Language Arts while preaching the healthy habits she picked up at Healthy Harlem to her mom and siblings (“she would say to me, ‘Mummy, you have to be healthy, you gotta eat broccoli, you have to eat these other things,’” Mariam says, laughing).

Yaya and Sametchie give Promise Academy rave reviews.

“The teachers are good here because they care about us, and they go out of their way to help you succeed,” says Yaya, now 12. “Like, if you’re failing, they won’t let you fail. They make sure you’re doing your work and you’re at the top of your classes.”

“It’s fun. It’s amazing, and I love it,” added eight-year-old Sametchie.

Student and teacher playing chess in classroom

Yaya Samassi plays chess at Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy Middle School.

A helping hand through the pandemic

Harlem Children’s Zone’s community of support doesn’t end with our education and youth Programs — it extends to a helping hand during difficult times.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Diaby/Samassi family — and many other families residing in our 97-block zone — faced unprecedented challenges. At the time, Mariam, a baker, found herself temporarily out of work. Yaya and Sametchie found themselves at home, attending school virtually for the first time after Promise Academy transitioned to remote instruction. Harlem Children’s Zone was by their side every step of the way.

Passionate teachers, technology for remote learning, and emergency supplies helped the family weather the crisis. Yaya and Sametchie got laptops to learn from home, and the family received emergency food and funds.  

“That was around Christmas, so my Mom bought me some clothes and got me some sneakers,” Yaya says. “My sister got some, too.”

Recalls Mariam, “The first time I went to pick up the food, I didn’t expect to get a lot of stuff. But they gave me a lot — milk, rice, eggs, and vegetables. On Thanksgiving, we had a turkey. They helped me a lot.”


Emergency response plan

The Diaby/Samassi family are one of the many families in Harlem — and across the country — that received relief from Harlem Children’s Zone during the pandemic. With our comprehensive, neighborhood-based model already in place, we quickly designed and implemented a five-phase emergency response and recovery plan to help our Harlem community stay strong and resilient. 

What’s more, William Julius Wilson Institute at Harlem Children’s Zone scaled our program with partners in six cities where people of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Because of this collective effort, the Diaby/Samassi family and many other families were able to stay on the path to mobility and prosperity.

Pathway to college

For Yaya and Sametchie, that path leads straight to the high school graduation stage — and ultimately, to college. The path begins early at Harlem Children’s Zone. Though he is still in middle school, Yaya has already taken class trips to colleges, including Duke University.

“I’m on the path to college,” says Yaya, who, along with his sister, recently started hybrid learning. “You are taught about college from the time you come into Promise Academy. You get to visit different colleges. They provide you with everything you need to get there.”

Mariam echoes Yaya’s optimism. After seeing her sister’s children, now graduates of Promise Academy, go to college, she can see the promising future that lies ahead for Yaya and Sametchie.

“I love it because they take the kids to colleges, they show them where they could be, and they make them promise, ‘One day, I will be here, I will be in a college,’” Mariam says. “At first, Yaya didn’t even want to go on the trips. Now, he can do it, he can make that promise.”

To enroll in our Youth Programs, visit

To enroll in Promise Academy charter schools, visit