By Nomin Ujiyediin. Program coordinator Isaac Goncalves and volunteer Dominick Josso-Martin lead students in a warmup before a soccer game at Mont Lawn City Camp in March.

Inner city kids learn life lessons

A youth program in Mott Haven is looking to provide local kids with constructive activities few of them are otherwise likely to get.

By Nomin Ujiyediin. Program coordinator Isaac Goncalves and volunteer Dominick Josso-Martin lead students in a warmup before a soccer game at Mont Lawn City Camp in March.
By Nomin Ujiyediin. Program coordinator Isaac Goncalves and volunteer Dominick Josso-Martin lead students in a warmup before a soccer game at Mont Lawn City Camp in March.

Mont Lawn City Camp teaches reading and writing, and just plain relaxing

A youth program in Mott Haven is looking to provide local kids with constructive activities few of them are otherwise likely to get. As program coordinator of Mont Lawn City Camp, a free afterschool initiative for students aged 6 to 16, Isaac Goncalves regularly sees children with incarcerated parents, tasked with taking care of younger siblings.

“You can talk to an 8-year-old or a 9-year-old that knows way too much about being an adult, more than they should,” he said. “And they’re being asked to have responsibilities that only older kids or even parents would have.”

The program is one of several run by the Bowery Mission, a nondenominational Christian nonprofit. Its City Camp afterschool program, which operates daily during the school year, is on East 135th St. in Port Morris.

For the dozens of neighborhood children who attend weekly, the programs leaders say it’s a place they can feel at ease with their peers.

For their parents, the program is a safe way to keep their children off the streets.

The camp offers weekly classes in reading and writing, sports and arts to as many as 60 students, many of whom are struggling at home or in school.

“There is so much that goes on in the neighborhood,” said Goncalves, “If a kid is coming into school stressed about things that are going on at home, or even just personal safety in the neighborhood, they’re going to have a much harder time engaging in school.”

Researchers say that afterschool programs can improve grades and keep students from getting into trouble with the law.

“Some attendance, even if it’s not consistent, has a strong benefit for kids,” said Pete Goldschmidt, an educational researcher at California State University-Northridge, adding that children learn skills like self-control that help them cope with negative experiences.

Cassidy Davila, 10, said she would be idle after school if not for the program. “I used to be stuck on the TV or in the house doing homework, doing nothing,” she said.

Makayla Allen, 7, says he takes reading, writing and art classes twice a week. Her mother, who declined to give her name, was at the school with her 19-month-old daughter while Cassidy and her brother Jaylen drew pictures in art class. City Camp gets the kids out of the house, she said.

“We can’t go to the park because it’s not safe,” she said. “At home, we’re on top of each other.”

Religion is a subtle part of the program. Being Christian isn’t a requirement, but most of the families are Catholic, said Goncalves.

“You can go anywhere and get homework help from anyone, but you can’t necessarily get a faith foundation or instruction,” said Gonclaves.

The Bowery Mission sets aside 10 percent of its $17.5 million annual budget for children’s programs, all of it from private donors, according to its officials.

Danielle Goncalves, Isaac’s wife and the program’s youth and family care supervisor, said that group mealtime is a key factor for many of the children in summer camp.

“A lot of the kids have never had three meals a day,” she said.

Many never set foot outside of New York City before enrolling in the program.

“They’ll step out of a bus on day one, and see a deer and be like, ‘oh look, it’s a horse,’” said Isaac Goncalves.

“You take a child who’s been totally cut loose, and are off on their own most of the time, and super independent, or growing up super fast and taking care of their younger siblings, and bring them to a totally new place where they don’t have to be afraid or worry about anything,” he said. “ They just have to be a kid.”

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