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Alianza leader remembers a summer that transformed lives

Alianza 2021 Summer Program CCNY
Alianza's Summer Youth Program. Photo Credit: Alianza, Catholic Charities Community Services

By Peter Feuerherd

For Eddie Silverio, Director of Youth Programs, this summer will be remembered for the smiles on the faces of young people from Harlem, the South Bronx and Washington Heights splashing in a pool together while learning how to swim.

It may not sound like much, but it’s a big deal for city youth largely cooped up in apartments during the COVID-19 pandemic, able to learn a skill they can exercise for the rest of their lives. It was more than learning an aquatic skill: They could be themselves, Mr. Silverio said, and acknowledge their own vulnerabilities.

“They didn’t have to lie to their friends that they didn’t know how to swim,” he said.

It was just a slice of what young people experienced this summer in programs sponsored by Alianza, a Catholic Charities agency.

The programs – which ranged from swimming, cooking, Saturday night basketball,  summer camp trips to Putnam County and a Jets-Giants game at Met Life Stadium – were especially needed after a COVID-restricted school year.

“They were able to engage with other kids,” said Mr. Silverio, noting that much of the school year COVID kept children throughout the city apart.

Alianza summer programs tapped into youth creativity. Arts and crafts and a special Harry Potter costume creation animated the young minds. Free donated ice cream and a carnival offered refreshment and respite.

Their counselors were paid for by a summer youth employment program, and that remains a vital part of the entire enterprise, training for on-the-job skills. High school students also participated in marketing and job training programs.

 

Alianza Summer Youth Program Group Photo CCNY
Summer Youth Program participants gather for a summer's end photo with local NYPD community officers.
Photo Credit: Alianza, Catholic Charities Community Services

Mr. Silverio noted that the spurt in violence this summer in New York City made the Alianza programs more needed than ever. It allowed for “getting them grounded to keep a cool head.”

It has been a tough year for many young people in the Bronx and upper Manhattan.

“There is a fear that they don’t know how to express. They hide it by being disrespectful or being quiet,” said Mr. Silviero. Alianza attempted to address the root causes of violence in the city. Saturday Night basketball included visits from the local precinct, with the presence of officers helping to nurture relationships between police and participants, with the hope that informal interaction will carry on throughout the year.

Counselors also offered a listening ear and support for young people challenged by COVID and gang violence.

Mr. Silviero said that there is a quiet change going on among this generation, a sense that they are more vulnerable and, at the same time, sensitive to others’ struggles. One youth encountered illness – not from COVID- and died in the course of the summer. His Alianza camp mates created a mural and a collage in his honor, and sent photos of their work to his mother.

The gesture indicated the sensitivity of the campers, said Mr. Silviero, an indication of how they are responding to pressures.

“They understand the importance of life post-COVID. Twelve to 19-year olds have a definite appreciation for life,” he said, noting how this is a generation that has learned to cope with fear of illness and the surge of violence in the streets.