Scholarship Winners Ready to Change the World

Jennifer Ochiagha is a little busy these days. Besides being a full-time grad student in mental health and counseling at NYU, she holds a full-time job at the Isaacs Center as a recruitment and admissions coordinator, plus she’s interning at a private practice called BeMore.  

“I do like to keep busy,” she laughs—then adds, more seriously: “There’s benefits at the end of the rainbow. So that’s what I look towards.” 

Ochiagha is one of this year’s 31 scholarship winners at the Isaacs Center and Goddard Riverside. Our two organizations gave out a total of just under $60,000 to help students pay for higher education. 

Ochiagha is footing the bill for grad school on her own. She says her award will go straight to tuition: “I’m, like, taking loans out to the point where it’s actually making me very nervous. So I just feel like this scholarship can help eradicate some of that fear. I can have a little bit more breathing room.” 

Her goal is to help disadvantaged youth with their mental health needs and eventually open her own private practice—and maybe launch a talk show, “kind of like Steve Harvey or Dr. Phil but more feminine, a little less controversial and a little bit more socially and culturally competent.” 

Born and raised in the Bronx, Ochiagha got to know the Isaacs Center when a friend asked her to come give a talk to young participants about her YouTube channel (her videos, a mix of advice, storytelling and person-in-the-street interviews, get thousands of views). She liked the atmosphere at the center so when a job opportunity came up, she took it—and she’s glad she did. 

“I really, really appreciate what the Isaacs Center has done for me,” she enthused. “I’ve been nothing but appreciated and valued. And the fact that in my job, they were able to also give me a scholarship for school, that’s just not something I would’ve ever expected.” 

Shawn Riley has always been drawn to hospitals; one of his earliest memories involves a visit to one. “I don’t know why we were there, but I remember I was like—I just love this energy so much. I want to be here.” Because of that desire, and the desire to help people, he’s dreamed about becoming a doctor all his life. Now, with some help from Goddard Riverside’s Options Center, he’s set to begin pursuing that dream at SUNY Albany this fall.  

Riley found the Options Center through Harlem Lacrosse, a school-based nonprofit that provides academic support, mentoring and counseling in addition to athletics. He worked with an Options Center counselor to apply to college and figure out how to pay for it. “Options is definitely one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of, because there’s so many good things that come out of it,” he said. 

For a long time he assumed he’d have to major in biology, but after talking to a doctor about his educational path he realized he could branch out a little more as an undergraduate. So he’s taking journalism this fall and sociology in the spring: “I can just like feel those options out and see what I like more, which I’m super excited about.” 

Riley has won enough scholarships to cover his first year’s tuition, which is a great head start on keeping his school costs down. He says his Options scholarship money will go straight to necessary expenses. “It’ll probably be my meal plan. Because of Options, I’m eating, so I love that.” 

What does he want people to know about him? “I think you should know that I am a queer black teen man about to change the world,” he said. 
 
“When I was growing up,” he explained, “I never saw anyone that not only looked like me, but also understood me, understood the queer experience, understood the black experience. One of the main reasons I want to be a doctor now is so other people can know that this is possible. There is a community of people out there that share the same traits as you, that share the way you think. You are not alone.” 

To support scholarships at the Isaacs Center, make a donation and choose Youth Scholarships in the drop-down menu for Gift Designation.

Working her Way to the Top

A young woman with shoulder length black hair and red lipstick standing on a rainy rooftop with a panoramic view of the Empire State Building and downtown Manhattan
A young woman stands with her arms crossed on a rainy roof deck with a spectacular view of the Empire State Building and Manhattan skyline

Jessica Leon was strolling back from a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side with her daughter when she saw a flyer for a job readiness program. It was 2005; Jessica was 17 and her daughter was two. She had no interest in the program, but it came with something she did want: a subway pass. 

“You attend the class, you get a MetroCard,” she recalled recently in an expansive room overlooking midtown Manhattan. “I had not a dollar to my name, so I took it for the MetroCard.” 

Leon’s life had been pretty short on lucky breaks. Abandoned by her biological mother at age two, she was placed in the foster care system and then had a troubled upbringing with her adoptive mother. At fifteen Leon was pregnant. She didn’t receive a lot of guidance from the adults in her life.  

“No one in my family ever graduated high school. No one ever had a job. No one really told me, ‘Jessica, go to college. Jessica, build a career. Jessica, do good for yourself and your daughter,’” she explained. 

The job readiness program was held at the Isaacs Center. “At Stanley M. Isaacs Center, I was taught to type and prepare for the work environment. Once I learned to type I liked it. I recall the instructor saying to me, next class, we’re going to teach you how to build a resume. And I’m like what the heck is a resume?” 

Leon had never had a job, but they put her brand-new typing skills on her resume. Then she learned how to dress for an interview and how to operate in an office environment. A while later, the Isaacs Center called to offer her a job working the front desk at their Senior Center. She knew her adoptive mother wouldn’t approve, because her benefits would be cut if Jessica earned an income. 

“I was happy but also nervous because I didn’t want to get in trouble by my mother for working,” she recalled. “But I wanted to advance my career and look into building a better future for myself and my daughter. So, I accepted.” 

From that modest toehold, she began to climb.  

Leon got her college degree—the first in her family—a couple of years after she started working at the Isaacs Center. She worked in the IT department of a big Wall Street company for several years. Then she got an offer in real estate. Now she helps keep things running like clockwork at a sleek office tower of over 860,000 square feet, with a view of the Empire State Building. Her daughter is in college. Both of their futures look bright. 

“I’ve been through a lot. I appreciate everything at this point,” she said. “What I needed from my mother or any guardian, Stanley Isaacs did it. To be told from the time you’re four years old through your teen years that you’re nothing—you start thinking you’re nothing. But the Isaacs Center believed in me. 

“And to think, it all started with a flyer for a MetroCard!” she laughs. 

The Isaacs Center’s Education and Workforce program offers free training in Culinary Arts, Community Healthcare, Information Technology, and Youth Development and Human Services. Click here for more information or email Shayla Simpson, Director of Education and Workforce, at ssimpson@isaacscenter.org.

New High-Tech Classroom Opens Door to Digital Careers

Left to right: Abby Jo Sigal, Cameron Koffman of City Councilmember Julie Menin's office, Isaacs Center President Roderick L. Jones, Abe Mendez of Per Scholas and Gale Brewer look on as Mark Levine cuts the ribbon
Left to right: Abby Jo Sigal, Cameron Koffman of City Councilmember Julie Menin's office, Isaacs Center President Roderick L. Jones, Abe Mendez of Per Scholas and Gale Brewer look on as Mark Levine cuts the ribbon
Left to right: Abby Jo Sigal, Cameron Koffman of City Councilmember Julie Menin’s office, Isaacs Center President Roderick L. Jones, Abe Mendez of Per Scholas and Gale Brewer look on as Mark Levine cuts the ribbon

The Isaacs Center cut the ribbon on a new high-tech classroom in May, paving the way for young people in the community to get training for good jobs in the technology sector.

The new classroom is the result of a partnership with Per Scholas, a national organization that helps people from diverse backgrounds become qualified for high-growth careers in the tech industry.

“This Per Scholas classroom will be transformational. After three months of training, participants graduate with one of the most in-demand, dynamic skill sets that will open new doors to career possibilities and financial security,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine at the ribbon-cutting.

“As one of the institutions most committed to bridging the digital divide in Manhattan, the Isaacs Center could not be a better partner for this collaboration.”

City Councilmember Gale Brewer and a representative from City Councilor Julie Menin’s office also attended the ceremony, along with Abby Jo Sigal, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Workforce Development.

The first class, which started this week, is a 12-week IT Support program culminating in a CompTIA A+ Certification and Google IT Support Professional Certificate. The free program also provides workplace exposure and connections to employers to help place students in jobs.

The technology career path will join other successful offerings in the Isaacs Center’s Education and Workforce Training program, including culinary studies and health care.

“At the Isaacs Center, the goal is for our Education & Workforce program to become a ‘one-stop shop’ for clients that offers a multitude of services to young and older adults at one location,” said Shayla Simpson, Isaacs Center director of education and workforce development.

“There is Hope”

John Woodrow Cox describes the widespread impact of gun violence on children, and says change is still possible

Chad Franklin and John Woodrow Cox

Watch our online Book Chat with John Woodrow Cox

Ava was a first grader when her best friend Jacob was shot on their playground at school. “Ava adored Jacob. She envisioned marrying him when they got older,” said author John Woodrow Cox in a recent online book chat with Goddard Riverside’s Chad Franklin. “She was devastated—she is devastated.”

Tyshaun was in the first grade too when his father was shot. The two children’s backgrounds are different—he’s black, from a Southeast DC block where gun violence is commonplace; she is white and from a tiny South Carolina town. But they struggled in similar ways after the shootings. Tyshaun had outbursts at school, once flipping over a desk, and another time shoving a fellow student into the wall. Ava had periods of white-hot rage. “She began to harm herself, she would dig her nails into her ellbow and pull out her eyelashes and bang her head against the wall,” Cox recounted.

Both of these children had their lives torn apart. But they have another thing in common: they were not seen as victims of gun violence by law or popular opinion.

“The scope of this problem is so much larger than Americans realize,” Cox explained. “We look at the 45,000 people who died last year in shootings—it’s a staggering number, but it doesn’t come close to the number of people affected.”

That number is in the millions, Cox said, and young people are particularly vulnerable—even if they don’t lose a loved one. He cited a Chicago study of children who lived in neighborhoods where a gun homicide had occurred. It found that the violence had an immediate impact on their school performance: “They didn’t have to know the person, they didn’t have to see it or hear it, they just had to know someone in their neighborhood was shot to death—and it affected how well they did on their test scores the following week.”

Cox is a reporter at the Washington Post. He won our Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice last year with his first book, Children Under Fire: An American Crisis.

Far more children should receive support when they’re touched by gun violence, Cox argued—and the amount of support should not vary according to the child’s background. He pointed out that when there’s a shooting at a majority-white school in the suburbs, resources come flooding in. But shootings in poorer Black and brown neighborhoods get overlooked. “There’s a belief that says it’s just the way it is for those kids, because they live in this zip code, because of the color of their skin,” he said. “It’s a lie. And it’s racism. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”

A few changes in the law could make a big difference, he added. We can stem the flood of guns across the country by requiring a background check for every gun purchase. We can help keep them out of the hands of children by passing tough laws requiring parents to secure them at home. Small and inexpensive safes are now available that can be opened in seconds in an emergency, he explained: “There is no excuse to have a gun in a bedside table.”

While the human cost of gun violence is overwhelming, Cox holds out hope that the end is in sight. He says grassroots groups like Moms Demand Action are increasingly effective at shaping public opinion and pressuring Congress. Meanwhile, young people like the Parkland survivors who formed March for Our Lives are poised to shake things up.

“This whole generation of kids who’ve grown up cowering in their hallways and thinking they might die in school—they’re going to be voters and they’re going to be lawmakers and leaders, and I don’t think they’re going to allow that culture to continue,” he concluded.

“There is hope. And I think young people in particular are the ones who are going to change things.”

Leading with Words

A diptych showing a man holding a book and a woman smiling with a copy of her article
A diptych showing a man holding a book and a woman smiling with a copy of her article
Rooney and Matloff-Nieves with their most recent publications

Writing for publication is a great way to share your ideas and influence your field—and it also strengthens your own work, according to two of our recently published senior leaders.

“It was good for me as a teacher, as a clinician, as a supervisor, to write something that’s academic and peer-reviewed—because it’s hard!” said Aaron Rooney, who oversees all programs for older adults at the Isaacs Center and Goddard Riverside. “It’s like writing a college paper times ten, because it’s real.”

Rooney co-wrote a chapter on case management for the Social Workers’ Desk Reference, a standard text used in universities and in the field. He describes case management as one-on-one work to meet a client’s needs—from food and housing, to making sure they’re up to date on their government benefits, to helping them figure out a confusing letter they got in the mail. He says he and his writing partner updated the chapter from the previous edition and added their own insights.

“The way I think about case management is through the lens of food security, financial security and housing security. And then we tried to look at it from a diversity perspective as well. The previous chapter didn’t have anything about working with LGBT older adults and thinking about how to adjust case management programs from one neighborhood to the next.”

Deputy Executive Director Susan Matloff-Nieves has been publishing articles for years—and even co-wrote a book on how to help girls succeed in science, technology, engineering and math. Her latest piece is “Partnering for Literacy Impact” in the journal Afterschool Matters. It’s about the partnership between Goddard Riverside and Writopia Lab, which provides writing programs for young people. Matloff-Nieves, writing with Writopia Lab’s Rebecca Wallace-Segall, describes the alliance as combining the strengths of both organizations to create a culture of literacy, learning and joy.

“Basically we told the story of how it developed, but I think in the process we were trying to articulate what makes a good partnership, because partnerships can be instrumental,” she said.

Matloff-Nieves loves writing and says it enriches her work: “The writing that I do as a researcher is really reflective. You look at challenges, you learn from other people. It’s inquiry.”

She adds that it’s important for people working in the field to research and write. “Research is political. Who decides the questions that we answer? Our participants should be posing questions, and we should as practicioners should be posing questions, that we then seek answers to.”

Rooney and Matloff-Nieves both plan to continue writing, and say the partnership between Goddard Riverside and the Isaacs Center should provide even more opportunities to pioneer new approaches and report on them to a broader audience.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to do interesting things, and we’d be remiss not to write about those things,” said Rooney.

>