My Experience as a FAO Schwarz Fellow: Building Community Partnerships
I’ve lived in Queens, New York for 14 years. I volunteered with Reading Partners in my freshman year of college. Fast forward three years later, and I have had the wonderful opportunity to engage with the organization in South Jamaica, Queens. My work as a FAO Schwarz Fellow in the community engagement team includes recruiting volunteers and seeking partnerships in the community of South Jamaica. We currently partner with three public elementary schools where I tutor and actively connect with local civic and faith-based organizations to bring tutors to the reading centers.
As a FAO Schwarz Fellow, I’ve learned the importance of building strong relationships with partners. One of the ways I’ve developed connections is through attending monthly meetings for the Jamaica Community Partnership (JCP). The aim of the partnership is to help develop a network among social service agencies and leverage the connections to ensure the community is positively served, with an emphasis on family and children’s services. My attendance at these meetings opened my curiosity to various issues being addressed across South Jamaica. Issues such as housing and gentrification. Typically, from these meetings we get to hear in depth presentations from the social service organizations and are able to ask for support for our programs. The meetings have been key to engage organizations that I would not have been able to connect with by mere online research.
An organization that I connected with this year was the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica. One of my goals at Reading Partners is to develop connections with faith-based organizations. In my research of the community, I came to learn the neighborhood has a high concentration of houses of worship. This was great information because it made me aware of the places in which community members came to gather. This informed my research and engagement. In order to develop this connection, I brainstormed ways to connect with a local faith-based organization. I picked up a brochure at a JCP meeting and read about the opportunities the church offered its members. Its members ranged from young to older adults. As I read about the church, I wanted to see if it was possible to meet one-on-one with the Reverend to learn about how he got connected to his work and the services offered to community members. Fortunately, I was able to set-up a meeting. Upon meeting, I developed a deeper understanding of this community. Our conversation allowed me to listen to the opportunities offered to its members.
Currently, I am finding meaningful ways to engage with the church and it is a partnership that is in the beginning stages. With time, it would be interesting to recruit its members to tutor at our centers, to offer both young and older adults the opportunity to read to children through Reading Partners. Nevertheless, the first interaction has taught me the importance of approaching community organizations with an open-mind and to listen closely to their needs as we introduce the ways that Reading Partners might be helpful to their mission.
Erika Apupalo is a second-year FAO Schwarz Fellow at Reading Partners in New York.