On May 25, 2017, 550 community leaders joined us at Starry Night to celebrate our shared commitment to the students we serve. Thanks to our presenting sponsor, Bain Capital, and the rest of our sponsors, school partners, and champions, without whom this wonderful evening would not have been possible.
We had the pleasure of hearing from City Year Boston alumna Mercedes McCurdy & current AmeriCorps members Sandy Fonseca Lopes and Shelby Lindsey-Vaughn. Mercedes served with City Year Boston in 2009-2010. In the City Heroes program, she mentored Sandy and Shelby; now, eight years later, they have returned to serve themselves. Mercedes, Shelby and Sandy took to the stage to talk about their experiences. Below, please find the highlights.
Mercedes McCurdy: When I served in 2009, City Year's youth mentoring program at the time, City Heroes, combined my passion for social justice and my interest in supporting high school students through service learning. The organization looked a bit different in 2009 than it does now, but there’s a constant thread that continues to run through it – serving a cause bigger than yourself, and investing in young people so that they can become the next generation of leaders. My role was to convince high school students to give up 2 Saturdays a month, and that community service was cool, which wasn’t always easy...but I got the opportunity to lead them through social justice training, leadership development, and service projects.
City Year led me to get my Master's degree in School Counseling at Northeastern, and then on to uAspire, an organization that helps students and families find affordable paths to college. My personal and professional journey is rooted in building relationships and empowering people, and that grew with City Year. When I did my corps year, I didn’t consider myself a mentor at first. But I knew that high school students can tell when you're not being genuine, so I tried to be real and honest. I took interest in them and tried to empower them to see themselves as leaders, reaching beyond the expectations that others had set for them, or they had for themselves. I developed relationships with some of the most amazing people in the world at City Year, and I want to talk about two of them, who I love very much.
I remember meeting Shelby early on in my City Year and he was the sweetest young person. He was on our leadership team and helped us create themes, plan retreats and lead high school students through the program. I became close with him and his brother, Zack. and that initial bond turned into so much more. I got to meet their family and our relationship has continued through the years.
My first memory of Sandy is her performing for us at a reflection session. She is an excellent poet, a very talented, passionate person. She’s overcome a lot, and not only has persevered, but stayed positive, and that’s so inspiring to me. She was always at our service days ready to do anything, a leader among her peers. As a corps member, it’s easy to get to the middle of your year and doubt yourself. Like, "Am I really making a difference?”
At the end of my corps year, Sandy told me how much I meant to her and how she considered me a mentor. It was really surprising, but so encouraging, because what I thought didn't matter, clearly did.
In applying for my most recent job, the interviewer asked for my proudest professional moment. And I talked about Sandy and Shelby. I even got a little choked up because I am so incredibly proud of them. I’ve known them since they were 16 years old; know the obstacles they went through, and in spite of everything, they maintained hearts for service.
Back in the day, that was the idea for City Year – we were serving elementary through high school students with the hope that they might serve in the corps. Which is why it was pretty surreal that both Sandy and Shelby told me they were becoming City Year Boston corps members this year!
Shelby Lindsey-Vaughn: I first got involved with City Year in 8th grade with the Young Heroes program. That one year was very influential in my involvement with City Year in years to come. My junior year of high school is the year I met you. Right off the bat you stood out. You were so welcoming, warm, and overall amazing.
Around the time I met you, I was missing a mentor and a role model in my life. I didn't really know I was seeking someone to fit that role, but you came along and fit perfectly. You were there to help me clarify things and when I needed someone to just be there. You were always someone I could hit up for a lunch break while I was at work, to come to youth group events, or just to hang out. I never said "you better be there!" but of course you were always excited to come. You were one of the few dependable people in my life at the time and always said the right thing to inspire me when I needed it the most, so I just want to thank you for everything you are, everything you stand for, and everything you have given to me.
Sandy Fonseca Lopes: Mercedes, you have such a contagious personality -- I remember the first time we spoke and instantly we clicked and the rest is history. You’ve provided me with many life tips, especially on college. As a first generation college student, the first in my family to graduate from high school, you were instrumental in guiding me through that experience. I was so excited to let you know that I had accepted a year to serve because you inspired me to give someone what you have given me.
Sandy, on a typical day: I currently serve at the Young Achievers School in Mattapan in an English class filled with some of the smartest, funniest and hard working sixth graders I’ve ever met! I support my students in 3 key areas – what we call ABCs here at City Year – attendance; behavior; and coursework. We start off our day by greeting students on the steps of the school with smiles and high-fives and sometimes even a chant like, “Hey! It’s you! You’re here! that’s great!” to get them excited for the day. We then head to our classrooms where we support our partner teachers, and break out into small groups or one-on-ones to provide additional support for our students. We end the day with our Extended Day program, providing homework help and fun activities like arts and crafts and sports for them to explore other interests.
Shelby, on relationship building: I'm in an amazing 5th grade ELA classroom at the John F. Kennedy School in Jamaica Plain. I love being there and they love having me. At first, I was just another City Year but now I am Mr. Shelby. Seems like such a small difference, but it’s a major one and it wouldn’t have worked without creating relationships, really similar to how you did for us, Mercedes. The simple act of being there and remembering the little things – it really counts. If my students ask me to go to recess when it’s my lunch period, I sacrifice that for them. If I told a student I’d attend one of their sporting events after school, I need to remember without them reminding me. It’s a message that shows you care, that you will always be there for them despite any challenges they may face inside and outside of school.
Sandy: Yeah, I remember when I walked into class on the first day and the first question I got was, “Why should I trust you?” I was like “Wait, what? I just got here 5 minutes ago!” But developing relationships is what brings about academic success. I just let it flow and didn’t force the bond with them. It happened naturally.
The biggest challenge that I’ve had with my students is getting them out of the “failure” mentality. They had fallen into the “I didn’t get it in the past, and so I’m not going to get it now” and they hated compliments. That was hard for me to hear coming from sixth graders so I had to take a step back and figure out how I was going to approach this.
My students hated the thought of reading out loud partly because some of them were reading on a 3rd and 4th-grade level instead of a 6th-grade level, and felt embarrassed. They would lose tons of time on quizzes and classwork because they would continuously have to reread passages. I’ve gone to the library and personally borrowed books that I know they would like to read like The Other Wes Moore. I’ll get two copies so that I’m reading along with them and we have little book clubs to get them practicing. A lot of them love to write and I love poetry, so we’ve incorporated poetry into our lesson plans. I’ll also use YouTube, TedTalks, and Netflix to help them relate to things in a different way.
I taught them how to annotate and make mental notes on the side of their pages. Now they can’t read without annotating. They move quicker and they understand material better. They’re raising their hands and volunteering to read out loud a lot more. Recently I tried to have them start off with a small chunk of reading and would say “Hey can you read this paragraph?” and they would say, “Actually can I read the entire page?”
Shelby: My student T is a really good example of the same thing. If you saw him at the beginning of the year, he was constantly coming in late, falling asleep during class, and being disruptive. He didn’t care about school. I knew it’d be a challenge but I placed him on my attendance focus list – taking time to ask him why he was late, what time he went to bed, how I could help set him up for success. One day when his grandmother came to pick him up, we were able to talk. She explained that T had a medical condition that contributed to a lot of his attendance and behavior issues. And she asked me directly to keep an eye on him – “I trust you to keep him in check; he really needs a male role model.” And I said, “OK, no problem, I can do that.”
I let my partner teacher, Ms. Heyman, know, and together we adapted how we worked with T. I concentrated on providing him with extra individual support, and that took the pressure off Ms. Heyman so she could keep the rest of the class on track. It’s really easy if you’re not having those conversations with kids and parents to write them off and say, “Oh he just doesn’t want to pay attention because English is boring to him.”
It was mid March and I’ll NEVER forget the day he came in, not only was he on time for the very first time, but he was also fully awake and prepared for school with a huge smile on his face. On top of that he got all his homework done the night before. Everybody who knows me knows I make a big scene when I’m excited about something and that day I made a big one. I was cheesing the whole day! I like to make a big deal when kids have those moments. Kids used to get embarrassed but now they're just like “There's Mr. Shelby bugging out again!” It invites them to be excited about their accomplishments as well.
Sandy: Self-confidence is something that I have prioritized with my students, especially for my girls. As an only child, I yearned for an older sister growing up, so I want to be that for them. I keep it real with them and honestly that’s how we have gotten so close. I’ve discussed with them my obstacles, fears, doubts, but also how I strived for excellence and never gave up.
Before we start each lesson, we recite a poem that I’ve had for years:
Hey little black girl... I know your worth
I know you are worth a million times more than what you could have ever imagined
and that’s because you are a reflection of me
and I am
and I raised nothing less
than a QUEEN
This poem represents breaking down barriers and showing them that they are worthy and capable. Sometimes I have to give them tough love in order to really get them to understand. I’ll be blunt and say, “You’re better than this, and you know better, so do better.”
Mercedes: What’s next for both of you and what are you taking away from your City Year?
Sandy: I’m helping my girls find their voices, and City Year helped me enhance mine. I’ve challenged myself and put myself outside of my comfort zone. Support, empathy, and purpose are three values that I’m taking away from my service year. They’ll stick with me when I go to med school and become a pediatrician.
Shelby: I’ve learned how to meet people where they’re at, and how you need to bring different resources to different situations. I think that’s why I’m leaning toward going into social work, possibly in education, possibly in mental health.
Mercedes: I think for all of us, City Year is more than just a service year. I’m so happy it brought you both into my life. And that I get to see all of your success almost 10 years later and the joy that you bring to your students.
View photos from Starry Night here.