"I have had the pleasure of helping them realize that there is more to life than what they see."
At age 21, Kiisha Velasquez and two of her friends formed their own youth organization for teenagers in the Bronx to "rescue their dreams deffered". Three years later, much of their success has come from recruiting their "clients" -- the youth they have served -- as volunteer mentors for the next generation of children.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Kiisha: Ever since I was 14, I knew my destiny was to work with children. For the past ten years, I have volunteered at several community and grassroot Organizations. In August 2001, two friends and I started our own nonprofit youth organization called A Different Side of the Game, Inc.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Kiisha: A Different Side of the Game, Inc., New York, NY.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
Kiisha: This organization was founded by three young women born and raised in the heart of the South Bronx. Although we were destined for a life of teen pregnancy, drugs and crime, we were able to break free, and reminiscent of our foremothers and forefathers of the Underground Railroad, we had to go back and get those who were left behind.
We provide after-school and weekend programs for children in the Bronx area. It is not our goal to provide "a safe place from the streets". There are plenty of agencies that do this. Our goal is to help children rescue their dreams deferred and to shape future leaders committed to making their community better for the next generation. We have successfully launched our Mentorship Program. We also have launched our Little Ladies/Fellows programs. This is an intense 12-week training program for boys and girls ages 13-17 to discuss some of the problems they have to face everyday and to find better solutions.
What inspired you to get involved?
Kiisha: On January 15, 2001 (Martin Luther King's Birthday), a wonderful, beautiful, angelic person was killed due to street violence and drugs. His name was Corey, and he was my friend. He was probably one of the most amazing people I will ever meet. He was born with the innate ability to always make someone feel special. How can someone so great fall victim to street violence? Through our mourning, we realized that Corey was just a victim to the Game, and that there are hundreds of kids growing up to become victims, too. We could not stand by and watch our young brothers
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
Kiisha: Because our ultimate goal is to be a community center serving 100-200 kids daily, we knew we were going to need funding, so our first step was to become a 501(c)(3) (tax-exempt organization). This was achieved in only six months, with the assistance of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. After that, we started small. We launched public events within the community to get our name known. Then we started to offer services to core groups of kids (Founding Kings and Queens). Once they completed a program, we then asked them to volunteer and to help the next group of kids in the program. This strategy has proven very successful for us.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Kiisha: Working with the kids. I do not know how to express it in words, but children are like a breath of fresh air. Even when children are misbehaving, there is still such innocence, candor, sincerity, loyalty and dedication. When I look into their faces, I see hope for a better tomorrow. I wish everyone could have that feeling.
What is/was the hardest part?
Kiisha: Naturally, funding. We serve primarily the African-American and Hispanic communities, and it is a known fact that the adults in these communities do not give as willingly as they should. For the first year, we founders had to pay for all of our services. This was very difficult because it meant we had to keep our full-time jobs AND provide services for children. But gradually (and I mean gradually), people became more willing to help us financially.
What was the biggest surprise?
Kiisha: The amount of youth organizations in New York City. There are over 3,500 in the five boroughs alone. However, they just provide activities for the children. They do not instill in the children the skills needed to survive. We do not "baby sit" our kids. We train them to become future leaders.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Kiisha: Reassurance in the old quote, "One person can make a difference." That's what’s so wonderful about working with children. At certain stages in their development, they do nothing but watch and mimic. Their minds are like little sponges; they soak up everything, good and bad. As a youth provider, I have had the pleasure of helping them realize that there is more to life than what they see. Just by showing them a difference and empowering them to make a choice allows them not only to change their world but mine as well.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Kiisha: Get to know the community you are serving. Use events to get to know their concerns and frustrations. Listen to them and see how you can make a difference in their lives.
If you want to start your own organization, get your 501(c)(3) first. This can be a long process, and you will definitely need it in the long run. The first few years are going to be very difficult financially, but do not become discouraged. Once people see your commitment and they know you are not going anywhere, they will be more willing to help.
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