East Side House Settlement celebrates a graduation

By Suzanna Masih. Graduates of East Side House Settlement received awards at BronxArtSpace on May 18.

By Suzanna Masih. Graduates of East Side House Settlement received awards at BronxArtSpace on May 18.

The BronxArtsSpace gallery buzzed with excitement on May 18 as the nonprofit East Side House Settlement hosted a gathering to honor women who graduated this month from its family learning program.

Amid cheers and applause, more than 20 women, mostly immigrants from Latin America and West Africa, received graduation certificates, signifying their participation in the group’s Toyota Family Learning program and in the design and implementation of community service projects during the yearlong session.

“We are immensely proud of you and I can’t wait to see all the great work that you will continue to do in your community and with your children,” said Ashley Collazo, the program manager, at the ceremony.

The Toyota Family Learning program was created by the National Center for Families Learning and funded by a grant from Toyota. In 2013, East Side House Settlement became one of just ten community-based organizations in the country to win the grant. Since then, it has offered the program each year from September through May to parents whose children attend any one of its four Mott Haven daycare centers.

The program involves families in community service activities and promotes intergenerational learning through civic engagement, particularly in low-income and ethnically diverse communities, according to its website. Additionally, parents are taught the tools to navigate the education system, to read to their children, get more involved in school activities and manage stress.

“Every year, we kick the program off with asking families how they want to see the Mott Haven community,” said Diana Rodriguez, the director of Family and Community Engagement at East Side House Settlement. “We ask, ‘how do you envision your community ten years from now.’ We also talk about their own personal goals. When we are creating sessions for them we take their responses into account.”

According to Rodriguez, a lot of people in this year’s graduating class raised concerns about bullying, not just in schools but also in the community. She said the group brainstormed ideas to combat the problem and came up with plans for “random acts of kindness.” They labeled water bottles with advice such as, “Buy someone a coffee today,” and “Say hi to a stranger today,” and handed out the bottles to people passing in the streets.

Speaking about the impact the program has had on the families, she said people have grown more involved in their neighborhoods, have learned to stand up for themselves and learnt their rights and responsibilities to their neighbors.

Kumba Yaffa was one of the 25 women who graduated this year.

An immigrant from The Gambia, Yaffa, a mother of six, has been in the U.S. for 14 years. She learned about the program when her 4-year-old son started attending the East Side House-run Mott Haven Community Center last year and joined soon after.

“I’m happy to graduate today because being part of something like this gives me pride,” she said. “I learned so much in the program – how to get involved in the community and talk to people, how to be involved in my children’s school activities and getting them to learn chores and clean up after themselves.”

One of the most important things that Maria Perez learned in the program was how to put her needs first. “When you become a mom, especially a first time mom, you kind of stay in the background. You’re always attending to your child and forget about yourself. I’ve learnt that it’s ok to think about me once in a while,” she said.

Perez added the group comprised people from different countries and backgrounds, which gave her and the participants a chance to get to know and appreciate other cultures.