Margaret M. Grace, Esq.,
Founder, Grace Outreach
Career: Over the last several years, I have been involved in various programs in the South Bronx. I was struck by the number of young women, mostly single mothers, that were high-school drop-outs. Many expressed an interest in continuing their education but their options were limited, they no longer had access to the public school system. The programs that address this issue, are not individualized, the student/teacher ratio is high, and varying academic levels are grouped together. This singular approach in a community where only 41 percent of adults are high school graduates coupled with the highest poverty rate in NYC, fosters failure.
Grace Outreach focuses on young women’s potential, not their problems. By making the choice to continue their education, these women acquire the foundation and tools to achieve financial independence. Once they receive the high school equivalency diploma, the goal then is to help each graduate pursue a personal career path. As they move forward, the voice that speaks about their future becomes their voice, and the path they choose becomes their path, strengthening their commitment to themselves and their children. Today, the only option or choice one has to elevate themselves out of the welfare system, is through education. Currently, a significant amount of money is directed toward enhancing the welfare of children, to ensure sustainable results, providing an educational alternative to the mothers. In fusing both goals together, a far greater impact is achieved for the future. Education is a critical element for anyone to advance in society.
Challenges: Initially, the most difficult challenge was finding the right person who shared the same philosophy and had the expertise to implement the program. I was very lucky in finding an Executive Director, Darlene Jeris, who structured the program such that success was attainable in a setting where the women felt completely supported. Programmatically, additional support through tutoring was made available. In late 2004 when the program began, surprisingly, the next hurdle was convincing people the value of an education. Some got it, but others thought the program would not survive and I was wasting my time. The concept that these women were not only bright but had the capacity to change their situations and go on to college was foreign. I learned very quickly not to listen; some experts never think outside the box.
Accomplishments: I am proudest of our graduates, in the face of tremendous adversity, they stayed the course and believed in themselves and their future. Often, when I visit Grace Outreach, I see one of our graduates not only working as a paid student tutor, but also attending community college. This makes it all worthwhile. They are the role models and heroes for the women in the program.
Turning point: When I was in 8th grade, my three-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia. The world I knew changed from that moment on. During her six year battle with cancer, I was exposed to individuals from all walks of life. They all shared a common thread: a powerful, yet quiet sense of dignity and the utmost respect for life. This experience, although painful, taught me no matter what situation your forced to confront in life, there is always hope.
Mentors: I have never had a mentor in the traditional sense. Rather, there are many individuals who have inspired me through their work. In my life, there is one person that comes to mind, Rosa Parks. She intuitively understood discrimination was wrong. She quietly chose not to give up her seat. Her decision, although appearing small, set the stage for great leaders to be born resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Advice: Follow the path that awakens excitement within you, work hard, think beyond yourself and take risks.#