Did you know that there are nearly 54,000 residents under the age of 18 in Northern Manhattan—25% of our neighborhood’s population? Volunteer Ben Ehrlich remembers quality time spent with some of our younger volunteers at Word Up:
Stefany and Angela are best friends, but if you forget that Stefany is thirteen while Angela is still only twelve, Stefany gets really pissed. They’ve both just finished seventh grade and every day come straight to Word Up. This is in the early days, when the store would have more holes in the walls than creative ways to cover them, when the inside could only become as light as the given day outside, when it would be up to all those puny little oscillating fans to beat the city’s summer heat. In those days, Stefany and Angela are our most dedicated volunteers. They make colorful calendars, price donated used books, work the register, and perform plays that usually have to do with gossiping, getting into fights, and then making up and hugging in the end. I watch them, awed, and it occurs to me that for this amount of time, these three or four hours a day, these young volunteers are in our care. They’re around us older volunteers—me, Veronica, Will, Tom, Mando, Robin, Rick, Susan, Mary Ann, or whoever else was there at the time—as much as they’re around their teachers, maybe, and we can influence them, our rag-tag crew with nothing in common but some whacked-out energy and bottomless love for each other and this neighborhood we share and want to share better. We establish our collective. We dream about keeping Word Up around long enough for Stefany and Angela to run the store when they’re out of college. We make that our secret goal.
It’s early on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting next to Veronica in a nursing home. The two of us make maybe a dozen citizens here at the Education Sub-Committee meeting for Manhattan Community Board 12. We want to introduce Word Up and what we do, but we’re near the end of the list. So we sit as one by one our neighbors stand up to speak about the children and what’s happening in and out of the schools. They go on and on because there’s so much that’s so wrong and no one dares to cut them off. One man says 200 after school programs were cut by the City the previous spring, including the one that he founded. I’m feeling angry too. I’m thinking, “What are all these kids gonna to do after school, where are they gonna go?” I’m thinking about Stefany and Angela, and I’m thinking about the countless other kids I’ve met at Word Up during my months of steady shifts and the Open Mic and around the neighborhood. After the meeting is adjourned, Veronica and I hand out brochures that say WHAT IS WORD UP? and everyone we meet shakes our hands and looks us in the eye while we tell them about what we’re trying to do in the neighborhood. They say “We need you.”
At our first Rent Party, some tougher-looking older kids that hang out on the corners come through because they hear the music, except now they don’t know what to make of the store. They’ve been up and down the block but never inside. One of them starts to look at the books. He picks one up a book and flips through it and he asks me, “How much?” And even though it’s one of our more expensive titles, and I tell him that, a $22 history of Washington Heights and Inwood, he pulls out a wad of cash without flinching. And then he sits down on the couch and starts on the first page, and he calls his boy over to show him pictures of how stuff used to look in the hood, and he’s just reading and reading, as if nothing is going on around him, as if the whole other world has disappeared, and he makes his whole crew wait until he’s done with the chapter.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. We’ve provided the children of the Heights with Storytime for Kids, Skraptacular art workshops, the Voices: Our Young People Speak writing and theater program, Alita the Show puppet show, yoga and meditation classes, readings by children’s book authors, musical performances, the Open Mic, and volunteer opportunities. Please contribute to Word Up’s fundraising campaign, and help our community continue to educate itself.