In the Apple, Community Service Earns Youth Development Dollars
Never underestimate the value of staying on the good side of old girlfriends. They might help your youth program someday.
“My old high school girlfriend is a member of a synagogue with an active youth group,” Rubinson explains as he sits amid rolls of sleeping bag material in a cramped Manhattan apartment. This is the headquarters of his agency, Fresh Youth Initiatives, and a visitor could easily say “so what?” to the synagogue tale: it’s in Florida.
Florida is exactly where 31 FYI kids have gone over the past two years for a week of play and community service arranged by they synagogue’s youth group. And twice each summer, more FYI kids go to Camp Skatio in upstate New York, also for free, because Rubinson went there as a kid.
Such hustle and networking has enabled Rubinson to build FYI into a vibrant force of do-gooders in Manhattan’s down-trodden Washington Heights community – with little government promises to rescue troubled kids. While many youth development agencies find that survival requires winning government contracts to try to turn delinquent youth from ills such as drugs, gangs and pregnancy, Rubinson and co-director Rodney Fuller have built a $35,000-a-year operation on private grants and one idea: good kids doing nice things.
The kids make sleeping bags for homeless people. They run a soup kitchen and food pantry. They paint old people’s apartments. They deliver clothes to the poor in shopping carts. They teach little kids to read.
We keep the focus on community service,” says Rubinson, 36. The W.K. Kellogg, AT&T, Pinkerton, Charles Hayden and Sherman foundations are among those who have provided the money to keep FYI in focus.
FYI stands as an example of what can be accomplished via sweat, luck, and as Rubinson says, “thinking out of the box.”
It also helps, he admits, to be from a middle class background with family and friends who are willing to support a dream. Rubinson, a Florida native, holds a master’s in education from Stanford University, taught high school in San Francisco, and worked in marketing at Parnassus Mutual Funds before winning a Coro fellowship in public affairs. That brought him to New York in 1991.
The Coro fellowship was one of several experiences that laid the ground-work for FYI. After Coro, Rubinson attended Youth Service America’s New Generation Leadership Training Program in Washington, D.C., which “helped me clarify my vision.” Back in New York, he wrote grants for the Hispanic Federation of New York City, which taught him how the grant game worked and gave him contacts with funders.
In 1993 he decided to start a youth development agency in Washington Heights, a moderate-to-low income, overwhelmingly Dominican community. It is a bustling New York neighborhood of apartments, storefronts and street vendors, of decent working class families making a life amid some shady entrepreneurs. “There’s a drug dealer on every corner,” says Dahlia Perry, whose son, 11, and daughter, 12, attend FYI. “Any of the kids could wind up being a drug dealer.”
FYI gives them something better to do. But how does a middle class white guy with a postgraduate degree launch a youth agency here? First, he moves into the neighborhood. He lives largely off his wife’s income at the Fresh Air Fund, which sends city kids to camp. He teams up with existing local youth groups such as The Dreamers, a sports-oriented program. He runs the agency from a corner of his apartment, and sets up meetings of staff and kids at subway stations. He speaks Spanish. And he taps his friends.
“My buddy from Michigan threw me a party at a thousand dollars a head,” Rubinson says, recalling one of the ways that friends raised money for him. “I ran some things up on my credit card a little bit.” His major single funder the first year was the AT&T Foundation which gave FYI $5,000 of its $30,000 in income. “I don’t even know how I got $30,000,” Rubinson says.
He does know that “by living in the neighborhood, I was able to do a lot of things and get to know a lot of people.” Rubinson is a consummate networker, and he’s in the right lace to practice. “This whole community’s a very ‘Six degrees of separation’ kind of place,” says Elizabeth Lorris Ritter, a local activist who met Rubinson through mutual connections and is now on his board of directors.
By getting local business and community leaders on the board, Rubinson expanded his contacts exponentially. Carlos Estrada, a businessman who in 1993 was executive director of the community’s Business Improvement District, became board chairman and still is. “We needed somebody who had contacts in the community that could help him develop the organization,” Estrada says.
The there is “my buddy from college, [who] was working at a pharmaceutical place. His supply guy had a thousand little Crest packets. They were sitting in a warehouse.” Now those packets are in small plastic bags that crowd the shelves at FYI, along with other personal care items that make up kits that the kids give to the needy.
The same kind of hustle and networking that enabled Rubinson to build a supply of toothpaste also enabled him to increase his funding by more than 1,000 percent in five years.
“We were lucky,” Rubinson says more than once. Lucky to have started a community service-oriented youth agency at a time when foundations “were recognizing the value of youth development, not just throwing money at kids who are in trouble.”
His first big break came in 1995. Through the YSA leadership training program, Rubinson had developed a contact with the Kellogg Foundation. Kellogg, Rubinson says, was one of the foundations that was seeing that “you can use service as an organizational principle for positive youth development.” Kellogg came through with a two-year $128,000 grant. “Kellogg opened the door,” Rubinson says. It let him expand his staff and programs, and move FYI out of his apartment into a headquarters of its own. It also gave FYI instant credibility among funders. “Once Kellogg came in, I was able to get my proposals read” at medium-sized foundations, he says.
FYI has largely resisted the urge to win grants by promising outcomes, such as reducing drug use or smoking. He believes FYI has succeeded “because we’ve focused on doing one thing and doing it well.” An exception: a Bown Foundation grant for literacy programs. To get it, FYI started a program whereby its kids read to younger kids in the neighborhood. The agency has since expanded literacy to several of its programs: youths who oversee certain community service projects have to produce reports about them.
“We’re combining literacy and service,” Rubinson says. “Service is a broad area – you can weave in a lot of things.”
He doesn’t weave in much government money. Out of last year’s $360,000 in income, Rubinson says, $8,5000 came from government, including two local councilmen who give FYI money from their discretionary funds.
One more that helped Rubinson increase the funding flow was bringing on Fuller as co-director in 1996. The two met when Fuller was doing mentoring training for Big Brothers/Big Sisters in New York. They’re now a team with complementary skills. “Basically, Rodney is in charge of people, and I’m in charge of paper and money,” Rubinson says. The arrangement “allows me to go downtown, maintaining relationships and fishing for money.”
The results of FYI’s work are all over the neighborhood, in the form of murals, a garden, and countless neighbors who have been helped by FYI or have volunteered there themselves. “Everybody knows FYI,” Estrada says. “It’s one of the few programs that’s actually doing what they say they’re going to do.”
The results are also evident in the youths and adults who crowd the office after school every afternoon. Some kids lay on the floor helping to sew together sleeping bags for homeless people. Some go down to the street to the food pantry to prepare packages for giveaway. Several youths say the favorite activity is the soup kitchen. “I get to cook,” 17-year-old Jepheth Youmans says with a big smile.
The kitchen gives the youths what they seem to like best about community work is changing people’s lives. They get the same feeling when they pass a wall that they’ve covered with a mural or when someone recognizes them as being from FYI and thanks them for some past help.
As Perry says of her own two kids, “They see the difference.”
Fresh Youth Initiatives
280 Ft. Washington Ave. #5
New York, NY 10032
Fax: (212) 781-1151
Boyle, Patrick. "In the Apple, Community Service Earns Youth Development Dollars." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 48.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.