T-shirts replaced tuxes, and high-tops were favored over high heels as the Glen Sanders Mansion ditched its usually posh veneer to serve city middle-schoolers grappling with the gamut of teen issues.
Students from Schenectady’s middle schools drummed, played basketball, wrote poetry and broke into discussion groups that covered topics ranging from having incarcerated parents to relationships, drugs and violence at the inaugural Boys Day Out. The boys were able to share their own stories with the group and get advice from mediators who have experienced similar circumstances.
“We want the youth to identify their stories with ours,” said Damonni Farley, a coordinator of youth programs in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood. “In our conversations, we’re not preaching to them or saying ‘This is what you should do, this is what you shouldn’t.’ What we try to do is teach them to be compassionate, caring and, most importantly, to be accountable for their actions.”
Farley got involved with Boys Day Out through Ebony Belmar, the social worker at Mont Pleasant Middle School, when he was part of a program that walks kids at Mont Pleasant home after school so they don’t have to travel alone through dangerous neighborhoods.
For the past five years, Belmar has had a huge hand in organizing Girls Day Out, a similar program that caters to middle-school girls. Support to create the new event came from all corners of the community, from inside the schools to the Schenectady Police Department.
“Every year, our girls would get a day off from school for Girls Day Out, and when they came back, the boys would always say, ‘Hey, what about us?’ ” said Belmar. “We also recognize the differences between the boys and the girls, and we try to cater to their needs.”
The Schenectady Foundation is a philanthropic trust that donates funds to groups for the betterment of the community. Belmar said its support played a huge role in getting the Boys Day Out program off the ground this year.
For the most part, Boys Day Out is exactly that for the group of more than 150 Schenectady seventh-graders. They get to skip a day of school to have lunch in the grand ballroom at the Glen Sanders Mansion and participate in activities they might not find elsewhere.
That includes Latin drumming, which was moderated by local salsa artist Alex Torres. Holding the attention of a room full of excitable seventh-grade boys might seem like a daunting task, but Torres was easily able to engage the middle-schoolers with his knowledge of Latin rhythms and percussion.
After demonstrating how to use percussion instruments such as claves, maracas, guido and congas, he worked with the group to get everyone playing rhythms in sync. Some boys were hesitant at first to play in front of the group, but Torres’ easygoing nature soon loosened the boys up, getting them into the groove of the music.
“We’ve got 30 minutes to put together a performance for the rest of the group. You guys can do this, I know you can,” Torres said as he patiently helped each individual work his own part into the chorus of drums. When they succeeded, he proudly applauded them, producing smiles from the young crowd.
In a rap-song writing workshop, seventh-grader Jeremiah Pratt talked about how his day went and what his future goals are.
“In the morning, we talked about our problems and our dreams. I want to be a basketball or baseball player or even a rapper or a dancer, I really like music, too,” said Pratt.
He added that it was nice to have a day off from school just to have fun and relax.
“Some of these boys don’t have a solid male role model in their life, so the men of this community owe it to them to be the positive role model they need,” said event coordinator Hector Ramirez, whose company, The Archer Group, helps nonprofit organizations expand and maximize the impact on their communities.
Looking toward the future, Ramirez hopes to gain more funding for the boys and girls programs.
“We hope to be able to provide programs for kids all throughout the summer, but we need the support of communities and local businesses in order to do that,” he said. “They need to see that this is not only an investment in young lives, but it’s also an investment in future employees and community members.”