Two years ago, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) faced severe budget cuts and the imminent closure of 25 ofits community centers across the city. To save these centers, the city negotiated a deal to turn operations of these centers over to the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). DYCD, in turn, gave stewardship of these 25 “Cornerstone Community Centers” to community based organizations (CBOs) that were currently operating DYCD Beacon Programs.

It was at this time that DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav approached El Puente’s founder and Executive Director for Programs, Frances Lucerna, about taking over operations of the community center at Taylor-Wythe Houses. According to Lucerna, “Commissioner Mullgrav called us two years ago and said Taylor-Wythe and we said YES! not knowing exactly why we were saying yes and what we were getting into, but we knew that was the call, and here we are today.”

The “today” Lucerna was referring to was Thursday, March 3, 2011, the date of the dedication ceremony for a new basketball court, donated by Nike, to the Taylor-Wythe Community Center, at 80 Clymer Street. The court was originally used at Radio City Music Hall during last year’s World Basketball Festival, of which Nike was a major sponsor. At the dedication, El Puente founders Luis Garden Acosta and Lucerna were joined by Mayor Bloomberg, NY Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire, representatives from Nike and severalNYC agencies including NYCHA and DYCD and many of the children who will shoot hoops on that floor for years to come.

“Today is a great example of what can be accomplished when people give back to their community,” said Bloomberg. “When kids are involved in sports, they learn the value of teamwork and start to build a solid foundation of skills that will help carry them through life – both on and off the court. This basketball court will help train New York’s stars of tomorrow and would not have been possible without the generosity of Nike and Amar’e Stoudemire.”

Stoudemire, nicknamed STAT, an acronym for Standing Tall and Talented (like this article needed another acronym) reminded the El Puente kids “Education is the most important factor. Keep that in mind. This is definitely an area where you can get away from things and play the game of basketball and really be free, but at the same time, the most important factor is education, so make sure you stay smart, stay in school, keep your head high and stay focused.”

Nike’s “United We Rise” initiative, an effort to improve communities through basketball, debuted at the World Basketball Festival. Through this program, Nike has made significant investments in youth programming at all 25DYCD Cornerstone Community Centers. “Last summer’s World Basketball Festival was a major success and while we wanted to highlight the global game, we also wanted to leave a local legacy,” said Daryl Jones, Nike General Manager, North America East. “We hope that local young athletes and possible future NBA stars, take advantage of this amazing new resource to improve their game on the court and help inspire them off the court.”

“United We Rise” is also the theme of the Taylor-Wythe court. Nike arranged for murals to be painted at six Cornerstone Centers, including Taylor-Wythe, and chose El Puente Teaching Artist Alfred Cervantes to be the artist for all six. Cervantes and his team of volunteers, consisting of Nike staff and administrators, DYCD staff, and El Puente Taylor-Wythe Center youth and staff painted the huge, wall-sized mural at Taylor-Wythe in one day, February 13th, which is Nike’s “Day of Service.”

“For the past 30 years, El Puente has supported our youth and families to create real and sustainable community change,” said Lucerna. “El Puente is Spanish for ‘the bridge,’ and those bridges are the partnerships that we have, and those friends along the way, who have bought into our dreams and into our visions. It’s all about bringing our hands together, saying yes, we can do it, and making a vision happen. To all those who invested in what is happening today, we will make you proud, we will make ourselves proud, we will continue to make history.”

The El Puente Cornerstone Program at Taylor-Wythe serves over 200 youth, ages 6 – 19 and adults. Youth services include homework help, visual art, percussion, sports and recreation, health and wellness support, leadership training and community action projects for ages 6 – 13, basketball, soccer, fitness, homework help / tutoring, visual arts and dance for ages 13 – 19. For the adults, programming includes basketball and cultural dance. For more information or to get involved contact the Leadership Center @ Taylor-Wythe Houses at (718) 782-5553.

by Jeff Mann

Green Point News