T he bell rings, and it’s a blur of high tops and backpacks on a Thursday afternoon at New Haven Academy on Orange Street. Some of the Inaugural class of New Haven Future Fellows has arrived, and they have things to say.
“Awwww, Laura, what’s happening? I haven’t seen you in ages. Did you hear about my project? Hi Frank!”
There’s a flurry of hugs and high-fives, a little gossip, a few more rapid-fire questions, and the five high school students—diverse and energetic—are eventually convinced to sit down to discuss a strong binding factor for the group: The Future Project.
“Future Project is like a family, and it’s awesome,” says Carole Richardson, an 18-year-old senior. “My Coach helped me grow, become a better and stronger person. I got so much out of it.”
Last year, The Future Project paired Richardson and each of 46 other “Future Fellows,” all Academy students, with his/her own dedicated “Future Coach,” who was tasked with helping advance a project—which, in TFP lingo, is sometimes referred to as a “dream”—of the student’s choosing.
For example, fifteen-year-old Sandra Ceveda, a sophomore, developed an after-school program at Fair Haven Middle School called A Place for Peace. With help from her Future Coach Omar De Los Santos, a freshman at Yale, Ceveda brought a group of middle schoolers together once a week in the spring semester for art, music and other positive activities. “I’ve never done anything like it. But I know what kids have to deal with. My goal was to help them get stress out creatively instead of violently. Like, take it out on art, writing, drawing, leadership. Instead of on each other.” Now, she’s working on making the project a permanent fixture at FHMS.
Kendall Perez, 16 and a junior, started “Projekt Heartbeat” last year. He worked with Future Coach Kimo Hon, a sophomore at Yale, to initiate plans to build a music and recording studio at New Haven Academy. “I wanted to improve our music program here. What inspired it was a deep passion for music. And also, you know, hearing all the time, ‘Oh, this school sucks, it doesn’t have anything.’ I got so tired of hearing that, and wanted to change people’s opinions on the school. People love the idea now, they’re all talking about it.” Perez made contact with musicians, audio engineers and sound equipment companies. He’s presently collecting donations and will continue working on getting the studio built (to donate or get involved, contact Perez at email@example.com). “Kimo helped me work on habits I used to have, procrastinating, being nervous about following through.”
Natalie Villacis, a junior, put on an Arts & Crafts Fair called “Creative Kids against Cancer” at Intercambio on Chapel Street last year. Proceeds went to the Smilow Cancer Hospital. “My passion is social issues and kids. My coach was Chloe Engel, a freshman in college. She really guided me, and I never thought I’d be capable of doing this. I’m more open-minded now, more motivated. And I figured out what I’m passionate about.”
Shafeeq Torres, a 17-year-old junior, brought his project—a four-member drumming circle called The Duck Bloated Qu4ckers—to Villacis’ Fair last year. The group has also performed on the green, in New York at a Future Project event and at the Boys and Girls Club in New Haven, and provides lessons and performances for free. His coach was Chris Jacobs, a young professional and musician from New Haven. “One thing I learned from Chris is to never give up, don’t quit so easily. At the beginning I just wanted to stop. I thought it was impossible. He taught me to put all my emotions aside and do what had to be done.”
Of course, that’s just a sampling, and in its second year the Project’s scope is widening. The goal this time around is to produce 120 Fellow-Coach duos while expanding to two more area high schools: Wilbur Cross and High School in the Community.
A current New Haven staff of four (TFP also has staff in NYC and Washington D.C. for its programs in those cities) is tasked with seeing that through. Along with City Coordinator Sarah Tankoos, there is a dedicated “Dream Director”—responsible for overseeing, encouraging and organizing the students and projects—for each of the three schools: Laura Winnick at New Haven Academy, Frank Brady at Wilbur Cross and Christian Shaboo at High School in the Community.
The application process for students is rigorous; those who best demonstrate the aptitude to take on an individualized project are named Fellows. And then there are the Coaches. “We’re into heavy Coach recruitment now,” Tankoos notes. “We need passionate young professionals looking to impact young lives. I, for one, really wish I had somebody to sit down with and ask my questions; someone to keep me on track and to encourage me to do the things I never thought possible. That’s what Coaches do.”
The online Coach application, accepting entries through Wednesday, September 26th, is relatively minimal and to-the-point. A successful online submission is followed up with an in-person interview. The resulting commitment for ordained Coaches is small—two hours per week from October through May, and flexible based on participants’ schedules. Coaches and Fellows are matched based on considerations like compatible personalities, shared interests and, in the case of Coaches, experience relevant to what a student is hoping to accomplish as a Fellow.
Like many other students in the Project, 15-year-old Colasia Claxton, a sophomore at NHA, found out that you can do a lot with just two hours per week and a well matched mentor. She started a dance class at The Boys & Girls Club of New Haven called “Every Star Will Shine.” The class met once a month for hip hop and jazz lessons. Her coach, Marilex Santiago, is a dancer and a junior at Southern Connecticut State. “I wanted to boost young girls’ self esteem, leadership, teamwork,” Claxton said. “I feel really good about it. Sometimes it was frustrating, sometimes they were rude and didn’t want to listen. But the girls that stuck with it really got something out of it. They started to shine.”
The Future Project
Website | Future Coach Application
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.