From the Desk of
Dr. Terrence P. Zealand
April 18, 2014
I am sending you a copy of the most recent Academy Street Firehouse After-school Program newsletter with the latest news in our youth development initiative. I am prefacing it with this letter so that I may share with you my personal experiences at the program over the past few weeks. About 1 month ago, in the middle of the school year, the Firehouse found itself in need of a new director. Kevin asked me to serve in that role until a permanent director was identified.
It had been more than 20 years since I directly lead youth programs at AIDS Resource Foundation for Children, and I have been (semi-)retired now for over 2 years. I happily wear the unofficial hat of "cook" for ARFC's adult support groups, serving lunches and developing a soup kitchen and emergency food pantry. I turned 70 years old this month. I was enjoying the slower pace, standing back as the next generation of leadership took over operations at the organization. Yet, I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to fill a need within a program that is so dear to me.
So, for 5 weeks, I returned to working 14-hour days and I loved it. Physically, I was a little tired, driving home to Monmouth from Newark at 9:30 each evening. At the same time, I was filled with more energy than I could remember. I felt as though the young lives I encountered each afternoon were directly impacted by what I could give. As you may know, the Firehouse serves kids from 6-17 years old who are impacted by HIV. Some are orphaned, some have parents with HIV, and others are themselves HIV-positive. The Firehouse helps students stand resilient against the combination of facing chronic illness and the sobering reality of living in poverty - homelessness, failing schools, lack of healthcare, lack of nutritious food, and violence. Relentless violence.
Pictured here is an image I took 3 weeks ago on Elizabeth Avenue in Newark. This is a memorial of yet another victim of gun violence. From past experience, I know that as the weather warms and gang activity swells, more makeshift memorials will dot the neighborhood. I will see teenagers holding vigil, memorializing fallen friends. As I drive through Newark each day, I recognize some of the homes where our students live, and just across the street or at the end of the block or at the house next door, I see the candles and balloons telling me someone died there. Marking a place of violence. I am compelled to take more pictures.
I heard a piece on NPR, which addressed the topic of PTSD in children growing up in some urban environments. This is the same condition that our soldiers suffer from when returning from war. For some kids, the conflict region is their neighborhood.
Our Teen Group meets on Fridays. One of our routines is to share our "high and low" moments of the week. There are 18 teens in the group with more waiting to join. The highs are often, “It snowed on Wednesday and we had off from school." For the lows, we hear, "I tripped and fell in the cafeteria and was embarrassed in front of the whole school." Sometimes, the lows are profound, “My best friend got shot 2 days ago." "My aunt was murdered yesterday." In our sharing circle, I was witnessing the news that I read in the Star Ledger and hear on the radio. It was playing out in front of me, within a 15-foot radius. These kids live on the battlefield.
So, it seems unbelievable to me that our Firehouse program, after more than 10 years of being a safe haven for children, still struggles and fights everyday for full financial support. We have 20 teens hoping to enroll in our summer employment program. If funding does not increase, we may only be able to support 9. The Firehouse needs another vehicle, driver, and a special education teacher.
Our students come from different public and charter schools in Newark, and they share one inescapable legacy - they are living with the impact of HIV/AIDS. The Firehouse has a 100% high school graduation rate for the past 9 years. 15 of our graduated students are in college.
As we campaign to tell others about the young people who need our help, I have asked ARFC to start a special fund for the purpose of supporting this program. With my personal contribution of $1,000, the "Dr. Z's Firehouse Fund" is now open and active. I ask you to join me in making a contribution of any amount towards the Firehouse.
Now that I have shared the story behind the beautiful smiling faces in the newsletter, you see why I find joy in returning to the 14-hour days and the long hours commuting. It means that I can continue to help keep the Firehouse open. It means that I can write this letter from the heart, knowing that truly every donation to the Firehouse is a special gift.
Terry Zealand (semi-retired)