It was a boundless adventure indeed.
On Wednesday evening, July 29, Backyard Sports/Backyard Sports Cares (BYS) teen volunteers, special needs program participants and residents from the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester discarded their differences to expand their horizons while climbing and ziplining together at Boundless Adventures ropes course at Purchase College.
The youth shelter is a residential alternative to serving time in jail for local young men, ages 16 to 21, who are being given a second chance to turn their lives around, despite having faced criminal charges. Most, if not all, never had the kinds of advantages kids growing up often just miles away in a wealthy village like Scarsdale have.
But when everyone gets together, the past is in the past and the present and future become the focus.
“We’re taking kids from an incarceration program and kids from Scarsdale and putting them up in the trees together naturally and organically,” BYS founder Danny Bernstein, of Scarsdale, said. “It’s a great bunch of kids from the youth shelter who get to mix it up with some Scarsdale volunteers.”
Wednesday was all about facing fears. “The fears are different for the guys in the youth shelter and for special needs athletes,” new BYS associate director Dillon Faulkner said. “Fear might mean something different to everyone, but [it’s something] everyone has in common. If it’s the first time you’re doing this you have butterflies, some nerves. After you break the ice and get them in the trees out of their comfort zone, everyone’s on a level playing field. Then you come out of your shell and work together to finish the course.”
After the group was harnessed up prior to a climbing orientation, Bernstein briefly addressed everyone: “We get to do something in a magical place. Either you’re coming back because it rocks and you love it or you’re here and there’s a little uncertainty and you might be a little anxious. It’s the perfect environment to get over fear. And the best thing is we get to do this together. We don’t go through this alone. We need each other.”
Faulkner takes his lead from BYS veterans Bernstein and program director Vin Minotti.
“One thing I can say I’ve learned form Danny and Vin is we try not to operate our program in a vacuum,” Faulkner said. “It’s great to connect the dots and bring people from different communities and backgrounds together so they can meet and mingle … We like to blend the zip codes and do things together.”
The relationship between the youth shelter and BYS is unique and while BYS is used to working with underserved communities, this takes that to a different level by providing recreation, sports and volunteer opportunities for those who otherwise would have been given up on.
“Some groups we work with, if we weren’t working with them nobody would be,” Faulkner said.
At first it’s like a school dance where kids stay with those they already know, but once the program gets underway the mingling begins.
“I love to watch this stuff unfold,” Bernstein said. “I’m not there telling them what to do … They own it from the get-go. Everyone is a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but once you have that common activity, that common language, everyone moves into it and they walk away feeling strong about themselves.”
Jordan (last names of shelter residents are withheld), who turned 20 on July 27, has only been at the shelter since May 6, but he can already see his life turning around. “It’s already doing its job, doing what it’s meant to do,” he said. “It’s giving me plenty of opportunities I’d never have if I never came here. I meet different types of people that are just better for me, to be completely honest.”
On Wednesday Jordan met Scarsdale graduate Jack Waxman, a rising Cornell University junior.
“Jordan and I had the best time,” Waxman said. “We talked about a lot of different things, talked about life, our goals for the future. We sweated a bit, had some fun and I definitely made a new friend.”
Said Jordan, “This is definitely a life-changing experience. I’d never been ziplining or through an obstacle course like this. I’m really anti-social, but today I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone.”
Jordan and Waxman have a lot to learn from each other despite having reached this point in their lives in completely different ways. “What’s so good about college is it’s much more diverse than high school,” Waxman said. “Being at Cornell I’ve made friends from different backgrounds and allowed myself to meet new people. This is just another example of the power of bringing people together because if you don’t do that, everyone lives in their bubbles and that’s not a good world for anyone.”
In a couple of years Waxman will have a college degree. Jordan has his own hopes and dreams. He wants to leave his past behind and become a dental hygienist or an X-ray technician, which if he keeps himself grounded the shelter’s Aftercare program could help him achieve. “If you’re serious they’ll invest in you,” he said.
The shelter, which opened its doors in 1978 in Mount Vernon, focuses on structure, clinical programs, education/vocation and community service as means of giving second chances in life.
Anthony, 20, has been at the shelter since January 2019 and said his life has changed “dramatically” in the year and a half.
“What led me into a bad situation was I was a selfish, noncaring person,” he said. “Being in this situation gave me some light to the context of the situation, how my actions could have led me down a worse path. The youth shelter has definitely helped me change my outlook on the situation and brought me into the light so that when I do end up getting released I can try for success and move forward in life instead of going backwards.”
The relationship with BYS has also had a positive impact on Anthony. “You definitely meet a bunch of new people,” he said. “Working together is a form of leadership. I have leadership qualities in me, but I had the tendency to follow. Being with the Backyard Sports has taught me how to use my leadership skills when I get into the real world. Leaders are what run life and that’s how you’ve got to move forward.”
Mark, 21, has been improving his life at the shelter for a year and has enjoyed the new experiences afforded by BYS, including skiing, curling, tennis and the ropes course. “It changes your perspective on life,” he said. “I was a little nervous at first because I’m scared of heights, but I felt safe, so that’s how I was able to go through the course. Now I’m great with it.”
Mark is working toward a GED and wants to get a commercial driver’s license, among other life goals that two or three years ago never seemed in his wheelhouse. “I also want to get a house, a wife, kids, stuff like that. The shelter helped me out to see I can have that, along with Backyard Sports,” he said “You meet people from different backgrounds and when you connect you learn. You’re educating yourself and knowledge is power.”
Rising Scarsdale High School senior Jacob Smith wanted to volunteer teaching basketball with BYS, but the programs are limited due to the pandemic. He jumped at the chance to shift gears and check out the ropes mixer with kids who have different challenges.
“There was definitely a little fear in the first place, but I trust Danny and I trust the whole process here, so it’s a good experience,” Smith said. “It’s good for me to talk to different people, reach out, help the community, be a friendly person. For them it’s the same benefits.”
Joanne Dunn, the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester executive director since January, has embraced the power of redemption for the residents. “With these young people we are doing a lot of interventions to understand how they got themselves in these scenarios and then how do we change the narrative moving forward for them,” she said.
The opportunity for new experiences and opening doors is one of the many ways BYS comes into play. “The exposure and the diversity of what they’re experiencing with Backyard Sports with not only the people, but the opportunities they are getting, brings them to an element where they can think outside the box,” Dunn said.
Dunn appreciates Bernstein because he “is always having us think larger and grander about opportunities.” She said she could tell right away that Bernstein was “definitely woven into the fabric of the youth shelter.”
When Father’s Day came around, since many of the residents don’t have a true father figure, Dunn asked who they each might want to reach out to to thank for serving that role. Eight of 10 chose Bernstein.
“He’s been a figure for them that a lot of them have been missing, that male role model, that male [who] can say, ‘So what that you’ve got this in your past? It doesn’t define you if you do things differently going forward,’” Dunn said. “Danny does it so well. They don’t see color with Danny. He’s the guy who loves them and gives [his] all.”
While Dunn was still getting acclimated to her new position, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly became part of everyone’s daily vocabulary and impacted the already complex world of her 10 residents. But, as Bernstein told the group, no one is on his own.
“Every turn of the corner Danny was calling to check on me,” Dunn said. “For me it made it so much more easy to be vulnerable as a new executive director and to be transparent with him and say I’m struggling in this or that area. Just as well as he coaches the guys, he was able to coach me, able to connect me to resources. While the guys are grateful for his fatherly advice, I’m just grateful to have a colleague and a peer. I can call on Danny any hour of the night. I know that’s who he is, but he’s so humble. He’s not ego-driven. It’s just him. His spirit and his power are so great.”
After three months of sheltering in place due to coronavirus, Dunn reached out to Bernstein because the residents needed some physical fitness and a change of pace. He presented some virtual fitness and dance challenges, along with virtual interaction with local teens.
“The power of play and how it generates the conversation, generates the relationship; we can bridge diversity, we can bridge equity lines, we can bridge all of these things if we can just learn to play for a minute,” Dunn said. “That’s so powerful.”
Between Backyard Sports and Backyard Sports Cares, Bernstein runs so many programs and all of them were impacted during the pandemic. Many of the programs took place through schools and involved indoor facilities that have not been available, so both paid and underserved programming were interrupted. More recently, as people are getting back out into the world, Backyard Sports has actually lived up to its actual name, providing small group programming in people’s backyards.
“We’re making do with the circumstances,” Bernstein said. “We’re doing mini day camps in people’s backyards, using their own land resources. The parents have been cohorting the kids and we’ve been bringing a couple of balls and playing with them.
“The community programs have been very difficult. It’s like squeezing water from a rock. The facilities aren’t available, but we’ve been making it work. We’ve been … doing some virtual stuff [and] we’ve been sending volunteers to visit the special needs kids in their backyards and driveways and they’ve been doing stuff together, which has been awesome.”
Everyone is just happy to be back out, even on a limited basis with social distancing and masks.
“The kids are amazing,” Bernstein said. “They’re very resilient… They fall back to having fun and doing what kids do. I’m not a psychologist, so that’s not to say they’re not carrying stuff with them — we’re all carrying stuff with us from this — but it hasn’t been noticeable. It’s been great to be with them.”
The boundless adventures continue.