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Gala Remarks of Georgia Wall, Board Chairman

These remarks were given at our annual gala benefit held on March 1, 2022. We were thrilled to be able to gather in person after two years and grateful to our Board of Directors, Gala Committee, Staff, and Volunteers who made the evening such a success.

Georgia Wall, Board Chairman: As most of you know, tonight, we were supposed to be honoring Jess Dannhauser, our remarkable President and CEO of the past eleven years. Instead, we are very proud to celebrate Jess’s appointment as the new Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services. This is very good news for all of the children and families in our city and we are sure, beyond doubt, that Jess will bring the same remarkable and compassionate leadership to his work at ACS as he did during his time at Graham Windham.

Yet, while we cannot honor Jess this evening, we can honor the very talented and dedicated team that he both hired and inspired – a team that is now led by our new President and CEO, Kimberly Hardy Watson. Kym has a remarkable history of achievement and her leadership has been marked by courage, compassion, and the commitment to do what is right and just for our children and families.

In doing so, Kym and her team are changing the definition of what child welfare should mean for the children and families of our city. I have no doubt that this new vision will be groundbreaking and extraordinary.

In answering the question of why we are honoring Kym and her team tonight, I am reminded of a message which I first heard as a young teenager.

In describing leadership, Senator Robert F. Kennedy once remarked that “some people see things as they are and ask, why? I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

This inspirational thought is at the very core of all of the work that we do at Graham Windham. Our children and families live in the poorest neighborhoods in our city as they have for generation after generation.

Yet despite this pervasive generational poverty, our team had the undaunted courage to challenge this unacceptable status quo and to ask why can’t we build new, creative ways of confronting generational poverty? Why can’t we dream of ways to really address the root cause of the challenges that stand in the way of progress for those whom we serve?

And our team has done just that, starting a number of years ago, by first defining the essential basics that lie at the foundation of all safe and stable lives and that every child needs and deserves: a safe, loving, permanent family, good educational programs, instruction and supports, college readiness, vocational training, and career opportunities. These are the essential fundamentals that enable young people and families to survive, to move beyond the obstacles that have held them back for so long, and to thrive.

Among our most creative and successful strategies to enable our families to stay together, are our Solution-Based Casework model as well as our Family Support and Empowerment program – now models used across the entire city. These models are aimed to work closely with high-risk families and to give parents, children, and adolescents the specific tools they each need to constructively address issues creating family instability and dysfunction. These programs are having enormous success as they focus on, and support, the mental health stability and well-being of growing children.

Today, as a result of our work with these new family models, even with families identified by the city as being very high-risk, Graham Windham has been able to keep 93% of the families we served safe at home together.

This is an extraordinary social change that is taking place in our city in our poorest neighborhoods and it is changing, in a remarkably profound way, what childhood looks like for Graham’s children. This would not have been possible without the creativity, leadership, and commitment to meaningful change on the part of the Graham team.

After family, we know that all children deserve a quality education that will provide them with the foundation to thrive and to grow into productive futures.

Rather than our staff dwelling upon past abysmally low high school graduation rates, our team did a very deep dive and collaboratively created our signature Graham SLAM coaching program which I know most of you have heard about. It has been extraordinarily successful, and I am proud to say that this program is also now used as a model by child welfare agencies all across our city.

Our coaches stick by our young people, starting, ideally, when they are in the eighth grade through the age of 26. Our coaches are true mentors and advocates. They celebrate our kids’ achievements and pick our kids up if they falter or stumble. They keep our kids on track, out of gangs, and in a mindset that lets them know that, with hard work and a real commitment to building a productive future, such a productive future is actually possible.

These coaches have a demonstrated record of success.

Our most recent pre-pandemic data confirmed that 92% of our youth who had the benefit of a coach graduated from high school by the time they reached the age of 21. This is a remarkable achievement considering that only 22% of other foster care youth who did not have the benefit of a coach were able to graduate in the same time frame. This very stark contrast of 92% versus 22% graduation rates clearly and unequivocally demonstrates that our Graham SLAM coaching program truly is powerful and life-changing.

Consider, for a moment, the alternative for at-risk young people in our city who do not stay on track. Just a few short months ago, the New York City Comptroller’s Office released its most recent report on the New York City Department of Corrections. The data in this report is as devastating as it is staggering to contemplate.

The New York City jail population, as of December 2021, consisted of 5,571 incarcerated people. Of those, 54% were young people between the ages of 18 and 30 – roughly similar in age to our cohort of older youth and young adults participating in Graham SLAM.

So, 54% of the notorious Rikers Island jail is filled with young people who might have become a Graham SLAM youth if enough coaches had been available, city-wide, early enough in these kids’ challenged, tumultuous lives.

But perhaps most disturbing is that the total 2021 annual cost for each incarcerated person at Rikers Island was $557,000 dollars-over one half a million dollars per year per person! This is a staggering number (which, by the way, has quadrupled since 2012). Consider what the life trajectories of these young people in jail, awaiting trial, might have been if, at thirteen, they had started working with coaches and had had the guidance and support to get them on a better path to the future.

In this context, the cost of a Graham SLAM Coach of approximately $6,500 per year per person, all in, seems to be a remarkably better and much smarter investment in at-risk youth than the $557,000 dollars required to support a person at Rikers Island for the same period of time.

The comparative data shows, most of all, the vastly different paths that young lives can take with or without the benefit of a coach and the vastly increased social costs attributable to those young people who become lost along the way without the kind of support that all young people need and deserve.

This program has been so successful because our Graham team had the courage, the creativity, and the determination to ask “why not? Why can’t we create something better for our struggling students?” And, our team did that. Our Graham SLAM youth are thriving. They are hopeful and optimistic as all young people on the cusp of adulthood should be.

We honor Kym, and her team, including our coaches, for having stood by all of our children and families during the past two years under the most challenging, painful, difficult, and heart-wrenching circumstances imaginable and for never having missed a moment in continuing to deliver our groundbreaking services each and every day, always with abundant energy, dignity, grace, and generosity.

We honor them for their courage to think big, to dream big, and to always ask “why not?”

We honor our children and families for teaching all of us so much about what courage, perseverance, good humor, dignity, grace, and compassion truly mean especially when fear and loss are so abundant. We could not do the visionary work that we do on this Board or on the staff without the trust and confidence that our children and families have placed in our working relationship and in our shared vision for what is right and just for all children and families living in our city.

What our management team, staff, children, and families have taught us all during this journey that we have undertaken together is reflected in a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and to be appointed Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now known as U.S. Poet Laureate. Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us all: “That we are each other’s harvest: We are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

As I end my remarks, I would like to paraphrase a thought that Kym Watson recently mentioned to me. Kym said our management team and staff have been so successful in carrying out their vision for what is possible for our children and families because they have cared so deeply – so deeply, in fact, that, they have engraved each one of the names of our children and our parents on the palms of their hands.

Those names, those lives, and those futures are a permanent part of who each one of our team members and, as such, our children and families are indeed, their treasure.

We at Graham, in our continuing quest to pursue what is right and just for our young people and families, will remain undaunted and courageous as we carry on this important, life-affirming, dream-building work because we know, in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, that “we are each other’s harvest, we are each other’s business and we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Thank you for being here with us this evening. Your presence and your generosity mean so much to each one of us, most of all, to our children and families.