“I want kids to start thinking about their future now”

A young man stands in front of an Isaacs Center sign holding a copy of ME AND MY AFRO
A young man stands in front of an Isaacs Center sign holding a copy of ME AND MY AFRO

Author? Actor? Model? Beacon After School alum Aiden Taylor has done it all—and he’s still in middle school. 

Taylor attended our Beacon program for first- through fifth-graders at PS 198. “Me and my best friend, we were in Beacon since we were little kids,” he said during a recent interview at the Isaacs Center. “I did a lot of writing there.  During homework time I would sit and write about my day. It’s crazy how it all added up to me writing a book.” 

Two books, actually—with a third on the way.  

Taylor was inspired to write the first book during the early part of the COVID pandemic. “I was just bored one day and looking on social media at how I could, like, make an impact on the community,” he recalled. He liked the suggestion of writing a book. “My mom said to write down three topics and one was self-love, so I just took it from there.” 

That book is called ME AND MY AFRO. It begins: “Hi, my name is Aiden and I have a really BIG Afro.” In colorful drawings, it shows Aiden and his Afro going everywhere: the park, the beach, the museum, the library, the basketball court. It ends with Aiden explaining why he loves his signature style.  

ME AND MY AFRO took off. “I didn’t think it would be that big, but three months later it became a trend,” Taylor recalled. He was invited to speak at schools and even got profiled in People Magazine. So he wrote a sequel. 

In ME AND MY AFRO: When I Grow Up, Taylor imagines all the careers he could have one day—veterinarian, construction worker, bus driver, teacher. “I want kids to start thinking about their future now,” he told CBS New York. Both books are published by Lightswitch Learning.

These days Aiden is working on a third book—a cookbook with his grandmother—while building his resume as an actor and model. He’s already appeared on an H&M billboard in Times Square, in West Side Story on Broadway, and in a video ad for Montblanc pens with Spike Lee.  

He’s done a lot, and he wants other young people to know they can too. Asked what message he wants to convey to his peers, he says: “Any dream you want to accomplish, you can accomplish it. You just have to put your mind to it and put hard work into what you want to do.” 

Greeting the Lunar New Year

A collage showing a crowded room watching a live presentation plus people being served chinese food plus a hand holding up a red Chinese fan

Older Adult Center members packed the dining room on the last Friday of the Lunar New Year for a festive presentation by social work student Vincent Cheng. Cheng described Lunar New Year traditions such as doing a deep clean of one’s house, gathering with family, wearing and using the color red, and exchanging gifts. Clinical Manager for Aging Services Gloria Gong pitched in, translating his English into Mandarin.

Everyone who attended the talk got a traditional red gift envelope with a decorative tassel and a red hand-held fan.

Afterward, the celebration continued with Chinese food for all: Chicken with broccoli, veggie lo mein, rice and dumplings. Fresh fruits and vegetables were also available to take home.

Member Betty Lou Shin said she learned a lot about the holiday—and Chinese food. “I’ve never tried a dumpling before,” she said. “I liked it very much.”

Older Adult Center Director Jemma Marens noted that Asians are a growing population in nearby East Harlem: “We always make an effort to celebrate the holidays that our community does, and to learn about each other’s cultures.”

She added that the Lunar New Year gathering was the last event the Older Adult Center held in 2020 before COVID shut down in-person programs. Now that members are once again able to gather, learn and celebrate together, she said, “It feels like we’ve come full circle.”

Training the Next Generation of Kitchen Stars

A young woman focuses intently as she spoons diced vegetable over a plate of steak
A young woman uses a spoon to arrange diced vegetables on top of steak in an industrial kitchen
Chanelly Mena puts the finishing touches on her plate of steak, potatoes and asparagus
Ricky Miranda already has a job lined up at a restaurant in the Bronx. He made the Peruvian beef stir-fry Lomo Saltado, rice and fried yucca for his final presentation.

Interested in our Culinary Arts program? Check your eligibility and get information here.

Chanelly Mena knows how to cook a steak. Her father, who cooked at a popular chain restaurant, used to bring home t-bones to make for the family. 

But the ones she’s cooking today are special, because they’re her final project as a student in our Culinary Arts program. Each student will present two identical plates of food for their classmates and instructors to taste.  

“I wanted to do it in a restaurant way,” she says. “Most people sear it first but I wanted to lock in the flavor, so I put it in the oven with butter and herbs and then seared it.” 

The meat has emerged from the pan looking robust and savory. It is perfectly medium-rare. Mena slices it and carefully spoons a red wine sauce over it. Alongside the meat, she arranges fondant potatoes and bacon-wrapped roasted asparagus. 

Mena is calm, but around her the kitchen is buzzing. At the other end of the long steel chef’s table, a student’s assistant has combined the onions for a veggie stir-fry with the rest of the ingredients—but they need to be separated out and fried first. Another student is carefully rolling up a cream-filled Japanese Roll Cake—a high-stakes endeavor, since the thin slab of cake is prone to tearing or breaking. Program Director Angie Marin and Chef Instructor Kim Pistone flit from station to station offering suggestions and encouragement. 

Tensions are running high, but there’s no running or shouting. Part of becoming a chef is learning to move in a disciplined way in high-pressure situations where dangers abound—from razor-sharp knives to pots of boiling stock. So far these students are passing with flying colors. 

Mena is the first to finish. While she settles down to eat one plate of her food, the other plate is getting rapturous praise from students and instructors alike. 

“The asparagus kept its color,” says Pistone, forking up a bite of meat. “The potatoes and the steak? Perfecto, my friend.” 

The students meet here in a professional kitchen for seven weeks to learn everything from knife techniques to emulsification to food safety. Then they’re placed in paid internships and get support to find full-time, living wage jobs.  

“Each year, we recruit, train, and place 50 students to launch culinary careers,” says Marin. “We’re very proud to see them succeed.” 

Some of the students in this cohort have already been hired. But Mena’s more interested in starting a business. She’s added catering to her list of possible endeavors, along with hair, nails and makeup. Mena is reluctant to be tied down to one thing. But she’s excited about the skills she’s learned, and she does like the intensity of professional cooking: “When you’re in the kitchen you don’t think about anything else—just what you’re doing.” 

A Touch of Beauty from GlamourGals

A young woman leans forward in a friendly way and looks into the eyes of an older adult while painting her nails
A young woman wearing a black face mask leans forward and makes eye contact with an older woman while painting her nails

It was midday, and the Art Room at the Isaacs Center was buzzing. Older Adult Center members sat on one side of a long table draped in hot pink, and on the other side, college students in hot-pink shirts were giving them manicures. 

The conversations flowed in English and Spanish as the young women gently cleaned, shaped, buffed and painted nails. And while getting a makeover is nice, Rachel Doyle Boyens, the Founder and CEO of GlamourGals Foundation, said the personal connection is just as important.  

“The makeup is a tool for conversation: If you have nothing else to say, what color would you like your nails painted? What color blush would you like?” she explained. “It always starts a little quiet, but then you get this incredible energy in the room.” 

Manicures also involve gentle and safe physical contact—something that’s been harder to come by since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Doyle launched GlamourGals Foundation in 2000 when she was still a junior in high school. She wanted to pay tribute to her late grandmother, and she decided makeovers would be a way to do something fun for older adults in nursing homes and senior centers. 

“I thought, how great would you feel if someone took the time to make you look and feel beautiful and take a picture with you and spend some time to make you feel special? GlamourGals was born out of that idea.” 

It seemed to be working—as our Older Adult Center members admired each other’s nails, praised their color choices, and posed for photos.  

“Our members have fun talking to the volunteers,” said Older Adult Center Director Jemma Marens. “And they definitely enjoy a little pampering!” 

Community Health Event

Community Health Event Sponsored by: EAST WARD BAPTIST CHURCH Partnering With Ryan Health & Isaacs Center DECEMBER 19TH, 2022 1:00pm – 4:00pm Free Services Provided • COVID Bivalent Vaccines for Moderna & Pfizer • Flu Shots (Senior regular & high dose) • Blood Pressure Screenings • Rapid HIV Testing (Insurance not required for vaccines; covered by federal government) • Health Literature • Snacks 415 E. 93rd St. New York, NY 10128
Community Health Event
Sponsored by:
Partnering With
Ryan Health & Isaacs Center
1:00pm – 4:00pm
Free Services Provided
• COVID Bivalent Vaccines
for Moderna & Pfizer
• Flu Shots (Senior regular & high dose)
• Blood Pressure Screenings
• Rapid HIV Testing (Insurance not
required for vaccines; covered by federal
• Health Literature
• Snacks
415 E. 93rd St.
New York, NY 10128

Get an updated flu or COVID shot, check your blood pressure, or take a rapid HIV test at our Community Health Event at the Isaacs Center on Monday, December 19!

The event will go from 1 to 4 PM and is cosponsored by East Ward Baptist Church, Ryan Health and the Isaacs Center.

The Power of Community

Several small children play with long-eared gray stuffed bunnies while sitting on a wooden floor.

Isaacs Center Beacon Programs Turn Schools into Community Centers

They snuggled them. They tossed them in the air. They even wore them on their heads. The children in our Beacon After School at PS 198 found many creative ways to express their excitement about the long-eared stuffed bunny toys they received as a gift from Singapore Airlines. 

They had made thank-you cards for the visiting airline representatives, but a third-grader named Emma took things a step further. She went to the front of the auditorium to thank them in person. She had already named her bunny. 

“Bun Bun likes to eat carrots,” she explained. “Bun Bun also like to hop around, and Bun Bun likes to annoy Noah”—she threw a sassy glance at a nearby friend. 

It was all pretty normal kid behavior—and Beacon Director Maribel Mejia was glad to see it. After all the disruptions imposed by the COVID pandemic, she said, young people have been struggling to get the hang of group interactions again. 

“When we returned, a lot of staff saw that it was a lot harder for kids to share with each other and do activities together.  Communication skills had fallen off,” she said. The staff has been focusing on social-emotional learning activities to help bolster those abilities: “We give them the chance to share how they feel and share their ideas.”  

At our second Beacon, located at MS 224, Director Tamar Joseph said his staff noticed the same rustiness around socialization at first. “They’re getting back into the groove of things. Now they’re understanding the teamwork—it’s not just ‘my way or the highway,’” he laughs. 

Beacons are a uniquely New York City phenomenon. Launched by Mayor David Dinkins in 1991, they turn unused school space into miniature community centers during afternoons, evenings and weekends. There are now 91 Beacons throughout the five boroughs.  

All Beacons offer an After School program. These serve as a foundational support system for families, giving children a safe and enriching place to spend the afternoons while enabling their parents to work. Our Beacon 2 After School at MS 224 serves elementary, middle and high schoolers, while Beacon 1 hosts first-through fifth-graders.  

When After School is over, the Beacons go on to serve adults with fitness and other activities. In the evenings and on weekends, both Isaacs Center Beacons offer basketball, soccer, yoga and dance (at Beacon 1 it’s specifically African Dance). In addition, Beacon 1 has Karate while Beacon 2 offers Boxercise. These programs are open to the community. Click here to see schedules for both Beacons. 

Come to our Career Fair December 3

Meet staff from the Isaacs Center and our partner, Goddard Riverside, at this hiring fair featuring opportunities throughout Manhattan. We’re hiring for a variety of roles from entry level through senior management. We look forward to seeing you at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, 250 West 65th Street, between noon and 4 PM.

“Put on a Sweater and Let’s Go!”: Taft Walking Group Enjoys Fitness and Friendship

Several women stand in a row in front of the Harlem Meer on a sunny day

It was a perfect chilly fall morning when the Taft Older Adult Center Walking Group began assembling outside the entrance to Central Park at 110th and 5th Avenue. They chatted in Spanish as Aging Services Caseworker Maritza Martinez worked her cellphone. 

“I call them every time to remind them. Sometimes they say it’s too cold and I tell them ‘Put a sweater on and let’s go!’” she said with a grin. 

When seven walkers had arrived, they headed into the park. Everyone went at their own pace. Eventually they emerged back onto 5th Avenue and kept going south, strung out in twos and threes with as much as a city block in between. This was no mere walk in the park. Today they were headed to 90th Street and back—more than two miles. The group meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, and sometimes they stay out walking for an hour and a half.  

The members say they get a lot out of the group: access to the outdoors, a chance to socizialize, and a workout.  

“To me, it’s the most complete exercise—it works all the muscles,” said Sonia Aguasvivas, a retired teacher. “I try not to book any other appointments at this time so I can go.” 

The walking group is a fixture of our Older Adult Center at the Taft Houses in East Harlem, part of the NYCHA public housing system. Taft is the newest member of the Isaacs Center family—and it didn’t get off to an easy start.  

The Isaacs Center took over managing the space after the previous management opted to shut it down. “We started in January of 2020,” recalled Aaron Rooney, who oversees all programs for older adults at Isaacs and our partner, Goddard Riverside. “We opened up and were serving meals and had programs in place by March. And then COVID hit.” 

The programs, including case management and nursing, all went online so members could continue participating safely. Other than monthly food pantries, not much was happening in the Center’s physical space. When it came time to reopen, it needed significant cleaning and repairs.  

“There have been a lot of challenges, but I have a great team and I’m thankful for that,” said center director Winnie Chan. 

Now the center is poised to expand its services. It’s planning to increase case management for older adults—that is, help accessing government benefits, plus support and coaching to deal with a wide variety of issues. It’s also working on adding a telehealth program that will enable members to meet with their healthcare providers remotely. 

“It may be a model that could be replicated. It’s all about breaking down the technological barriers and giving people the ability to see their doctor—not only teaching them but giving them the space at the Center to do it,” explained Rooney.  

“It could be a very exciting year for Taft.” 

Back to School with Backpacks and More

Two girls eat cotton candy while wearing new backpacks

“There’s toys! There’s toys!” a small girl called out. She dashed across the dining room at our partner, the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, to get a closer look.

“Best. Day. Ever.” announced another child.

The room was lined with tables containing backpacks, markers, crayons, post-it notes, calculators and other school supplies for all ages. After filling their backpacks, children could pick a toy from a selection of whiffleballs and bats, fidget toys, craft kits, jump-ropes and more. Everyone enjoyed cotton candy made fresh on the spot.

There was similar excitement at our Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, where we held the giveaway outside. “I’ve got mad stuff in here and I don’t even go to school!” said one preschool-aged boy, holding up his pack.

We’re grateful to Stone Point Capital and Target for sponsoring the giveaways and sending volunteers, as well the local tenant leaders who pitched in to help!