Every week for the past two years, Danielle Degani, a rising junior at Scarsdale High School, helped a third-grader at Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon learn basic math skills.
“He didn’t know his multiplication tables that well but we wanted him to learn,” she said. “So, I made flash cards and worked with him.”
For nearly two decades, Amazing Afternoons, an array of after-school programs at Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon, has been enriching the lives of elementary school children through academic and youth development activities such as homework help, computer skills, music, literacy, arts and crafts, sports, nutrition and conflict resolution.
The program won’t be offered this coming school year because the partnership’s funding documentation has expired.
“We’re very concerned about the dissolving of the after-school program because it’s such a strong academic, social-emotional support for these kids,” Helene Getz, one of Amazing Afternoon’s longtime advisory board members, said.
The program was more than just after-school enrichment for the children and the volunteers. “It’s touched so many people,” Getz said.
Run by Westchester Jewish Community Services, it was started 20 years ago by Mary Figueroa of WJCS and Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple.
In a partnership between Westchester Jewish Community Services and the Mount Vernon City School District, volunteers and community members helped make the program happen.
It was funded by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services’ Advantage After School initiative, and received money through private funding.
Teens from the Scarsdale School District and several religious institutions worked as volunteers in the program.
Natalie Schonfeld, a rising junior at Scarsdale High School, was a member of the SHS Edward Williams Club.
She said it connected high school students from Scarsdale with elementary school children in Mount Vernon to create a fulfilling relationship on both ends.
“These afternoons are gratifying for both the older students and the younger students who benefit not only from the tutoring but extra attention from ‘big kids’,” she said. “I can honestly say my afternoons at Edward Williams have been a highlight of my high school experience.”
Another SHS junior, Keerthana Chari, joined the Music Education Club at the high school in her freshman year with no prior experience teaching music.
“Learning how to work with the students at Edward Williams pushed me to approach making music in an entirely new way and it was extremely gratifying to see both myself and my students grow throughout the year,” Chari said. “The final student recital was truly a heartwarming experience for me.”
Justin Lofaso said the Edward Williams Club helped him understand the importance of volunteer service.
“My involvement in the Edward Williams Club has taught me how to be a role model and an active participant in the community,” Lofaso said. “I am glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of this club, however, I am upset that I will not be able to see these kids in the future.”
Miriam Arond, director of marketing and communications for WJCS, said Amazing Afternoons had a strong partnership with WRT, as well as Scarsdale High School.
“Students from Scarsdale High School formed Amazing Afternoons clubs [to] tutor, teach, play basketball, lead music classes and engage the children in a host of other activities,” Arond said. “WJCS staff has been committed to ensuring that children who attend Edward Williams Elementary School are provided a variety of academic and enrichment activities. The program has been fully enrolled.”
According to a statement released by WJCS, despite repeated attempts in February to engage and urge the Mount Vernon School District’s administration to agree to a partnership and provide necessary documentation for WJCS to fund the programs, the deadline for the application passed without a response.
Cheryl Smith, outreach chair for the Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale, said the church had a long-term relationship with the program as well.
She said the church gave gifts to the third- and fourth-grade children at Christmas, and helped raise money to send kids to camp in the summer. To do that, the church held an annual benefit concert at which people would donate money to help the cause.
Smith also said the church coordinated with Westchester Reform Temple to raise money.
In addition, some teen parishioners were involved in tutoring and helping students build reading skills. Volunteers included parents, students and teachers — many of whom were Scarsdale residents and, according to Getz, the advisory board became more involved with the other organizations that were part of helping with the program, including St. James the Less.
Each year a portion of the funds raised helped sponsor kids from Edward Williams School to attend Wagon Road Camp, a 53-acre facility in Chappaqua that strives to help kids in poverty to succeed by providing comprehensive support to children, youth and their families in targeted high-needs neighborhoods.
To take part in the after-school program, the Mount Vernon students’ families paid a small fee, but the program gave so much to the volunteers, Getz said, citing herself as an example. Involved with the Amazing Afternoons program since 2005, Getz taught yoga in an after-school session and said she got to know the students and their families. She also helped some students go to the camp.
Some of the children participated in the after-school program, went to camp, and eventually worked as program staff — a paid position for the Mount Vernon residents — and some of the kids who attended Wagon Road Camp went on to become counselors there.
“It touched so many kids, families and connected so many kids,” Getz said. “The threads keep going back and forth. We are very connected, not just to the little ones, but to the middle school, high school, college and beyond.”
Families in both communities learned from one another, she said. “They form bonds that are unbroken. It’s bridging what we need to bridge. They may come from varied backgrounds, but they have things in common.
“One of the things it’s done is affording the vulnerable children a level playing field with people who have opportunities,” she said. “In the after-school program, the kids have homework help. They get recreation time. They’re being afforded relationships with people from different backgrounds and abilities to participate in a summer program. We have a close network.”
A representative from the Mount Vernon School District was not available for comment at press time.