New Yorkers take their dedication to helping others seriously. in honor of our philanthropy issue, we gathered five of the city’s best, brightest and most-talented do-gooders to discuss the importance of their causes.
John Legend: Turnaround for Children
I’ve always been drawn to the Gates Foundation’s motto that every life has equal value. Through my own philanthropic work, I try to put that belief into action, seeing the value in every child and helping them achieve their potential. My Show Me Campaign focuses on education because it’s the single greatest tool a child can have to break out of potential-limiting poverty.
Our children are our country’s greatest national resource, yet our educational system isn’t providing all the tools they need to achieve. And we owe our children more—every student, regardless of race or ZIP code, deserves a quality education.
I saw Turnaround for Children working to provide just that, which is why I got involved in 2011. A few components of the organization’s approach particularly struck me. The first is its unique understanding of how the entire school and community culture can affect the achievement of each individual child. Rather than focusing exclusively on in-school factors, Turnaround understands that a child’s home, community and school environments all affect his or her ability to learn in the classroom; you can’t separate what happens outside of the classroom from what happens within. Turnaround gets that, and provides a holistic, individualized support system to students through in-school social workers and training to help teachers learn how to best meet their students’ distinct needs.
Second, I appreciate Turnaround’s investment in teachers. We’ve all had a teacher who guided us and made a difference in our lives—I know I did. I didn’t think I was a good writer, but my high school English teacher, Mrs. Bodey, saw the potential in me and motivated me to succeed. Now I write songs for a living. Turnaround recognizes the value of quality teachers like Mrs. Bodey, and provides weekly training sessions that offer the ongoing support that any professional needs to succeed.
Finally, Turnaround demonstrates an effective, cost-efficient approach. It costs only $642 per child per year for Turnaround to work in a school—which means we can no longer make excuses for not providing students with the resources they need to be successful.
Beyond these practical reasons for supporting Turnaround, I’m also passionate about what it does because I’ve seen firsthand how their work has transformed students’ lives. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Turnaround’s partner schools to witness how they operate like a community, embracing each child individually. I remember one charming young student telling me that when he started at the school, the kids were all “goofy,” but now they’d developed into more focused young adults. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Helping young people find something that gets them excited enough to focus. Helping them explore an interest until it turns into a passion.
I hope that everyone sees the same potential in Turnaround that I do, and that together we bring this to every American student who could benefit.
Franca Sozzani: Fashion 4 Development
Fashion 4 Development aims to provide a framework upon which young designers around the world may be assisted and educated. These designers have ideas, they have talent and they can produce—but they don’t know how to build distribution. Many of them have small studios, so I work alongside F4D’s resident and founder, Evie Evangelou, to improve their studios, introduce investors to the sustainable operations behind the couture and involve e-commerce websites.
Fashion, at the end of the day, is a dream and a fantasy, and the populations within developing countries have an overwhelming amount of creativity to drive that fantasy. They need only channel their natural resources into projects that can be exported abroad. Evangelou and I have developed a platform to make this happen. Through F4D, she reminds us that it’s a serious misconception that high-end couture is only created in fashion capitals like Milan, Paris and New York City. We know talented individuals in places like Ghana, Bangladesh and Kuwait who are working with local materials and techniques. These on-trend creations could be found on any Fashion Week runway.
Generally speaking, I don’t like the word “charity” because it places the giver and the beneficiary on two totally different levels; but it’s true that there are people who are less fortunate than others, and supporting initiatives is our duty. However, “supporting” doesn’t mean simply doing charity work—it means creating a concrete project to raise funds devoted to research and education.
In short, the concept of “support” has a more pragmatic and operational meaning for me. Its true definition informs how I seek to guide and cultivate young fashion talents within my role as Goodwill Ambassador to F4D.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Edible Schoolyard New York City
I’ve been lucky to be involved with Edible Schoolyard New York City for quite some time. Even before I got involved with the ESYNYC, food and gardening meant a great deal to me.
I grew up around fresh fruits and vegetables, growing my own food and developing a community through the gardens. We always had good food in my house. I got to know my mother, my father and my sister around a dinner table—and that’s how they got to know me. When kids are growing and cooking their own food, they feel empowered and connected—to the Earth and to each other, even in a sprawling metropolis like New York City.
ESYNYC offers the children of New York an opportunity to develop their identities using the powerful resource of gardening. It teaches them how to care for themselves and each other—which is the most important lesson they can learn. I’m proud of the work we’ve done at our showcase school, Brooklyn’s P.S. 216, since starting the program there in the fall of 2010. This past year we expanded to add another school, P.S. 7, in Harlem.
Our current plan includes opening the program at a school in each of the five boroughs. But, ultimately, the goal is to have an Edible Schoolyard at every school in the city.
Caryn Zucker: American Ballet Theatre
Ballet has been an important part of my life for many years. I studied as a little girl, starting at age 5, then continued for many years. Ballet has the remarkable ability to teach one to be truly in the moment. Along with the physical rigor and strength it demands, it also offers amazing emotional lessons. Young dancers learn discipline, the ability to manage deadlines, problem solving and, of course, disappointment as well as triumph. All of these build a sense of confidence and self-esteem that’s critical to the success of any young person. These skills last a lifetime.
My early experience with ballet nurtured in me a love of dance that continues to this day. The joy I see on the stage transports me, and its beauty is unparalleled. So it was such an honor to be a co-chair of the ABT Gala this year, along with Julia Koch and Sutton Stracke. ABT is not only one of America’s national companies—it’s widely recognized as one of the world’s premier ballet companies.
In its nearly 75 years, ABT has performed nationally and internationally, and currently has audiences topping 600,000 people each year. In its role as a cultural leader, ABT has made historic tours to Russia, Cuba, China and Abu Dhabi, touching lives across the globe. With its artist in residence, Alexei Ratmansky, who also happens to be a MacArthur Genius Award winner, ABT is setting new standards of excellence for the field.
I’m thrilled to be part of the ABT family, and to be able to help these extraordinary dancers thrive. The proceeds from the Gala help to ensure ABT’s artistic excellence, as well as support its role as a leader in dance education. ABT seeks to bring ballet to America, and American ballet to the world.
Valesca guerrand-Hermès: New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
As a mother of two, I’m keenly aware of how much support, love and attention children need. The thought of a parent or caretaker hurting a child in any way is horrific to me. So I’ve spent the past several years focusing my efforts on helping and protecting children in need.
Last year, a friend of mine asked me to co-chair the annual luncheon of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which featured a talk by Elizabeth Smart. Her story of abduction, abuse and rape is chilling—one can’t help but be affected by it. Fortunately, though, Smart’s story has a happy ending: She’s living proof that children are resilient. But more often than not, these stories do not end well.
It’s important to recognize how pervasive the problems of child abuse and neglect are in our society, so I was eager to continue my involvement with the NYSPCC. I’m proud to say I recently accepted a position on its board of directors and will again be co-chairing the spring luncheon, which will take place on April 10, 2014. The program will include a discussion with the very brave Aaron Fisher, the first victim to come out about being sexually abused by Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky.
The NYSPCC has a successful track record in providing the best counseling, legal help and educational services to abused and neglected children. The organization also educates the public about the issues of child abuse and how it can be prevented in our communities. I’m particularly impressed with its Safe Touches program, which, through the use of a puppet show, gives children in kindergarten to third grade the proper tools for preventing sexual abuse.
For me, it’s essential that comprehensive programs be put in place at both the national and local levels to educate the public about what factors contribute to child abuse, neglect and harm, as well as how to spot the signs that a child is being targeted. And, when children have been abused or neglected at home, at school or in any other setting, it’s important that procedures are in place to prevent them from being put back into an unsafe environment where the abuse or neglect could continue. Social programs that provide counseling and educational services are needed to ensure that these children are able to heal and grow into stable, happy adults.
Every child deserves to feel safe and secure. And every citizen has the responsibility to be vigilant in preventing child abuse and neglect in his or her community.