The Power of a Mentor

Riis Academy’s after-school and summer programs are staffed by many hardworking individuals who are committed to ensuring that our participants are provided a safe and enriching environment in which they can thrive both socially and academically. Some of those individuals have dedicated their entire careers to promoting positive youth development practices – serving as mentor and role model to a great many.

Albert Pollard is one of those individuals. As a longtime member of the Riis Academy team, Albert has held many roles within the program and has touched the lives of countless youth. There is no small number of people who could and do testify to the profound and lasting impact that Albert has had on their lives.

Albert found his way to Riis Settlement somewhat by chance. He and our former Executive Director Bill Newlin had grown up together on the Lower East Side, and Mr. Newlin was aware of Albert’s passion for practicing and teaching martial arts. The two men lost touch but ran into each other again some years later in 1993, and it was then that Mr. Newlin encouraged Albert to bring his teaching skills to the after-school program at the Queensbridge community center. That happenstance encounter started a long career for Albert at Riis Settlement during which time he went on to serve as program director at a number of Riis’ after-school programs (Queensbridge, IS204, PS126, and InfoTech High School). Regardless of the other duties that each new role entailed, Albert continued to teach his Northern Shaolin style of martial arts to participants and local youth — offering them a much-needed recreational outlet and helping them cultivate critical life skills such as self-discipline and resilience. In addition to teaching, he spent untold weekends taking the youth to competitions all over the city and state.

When Albert retired from Riis Academy in 2011, the director of our PS166 program, Iftikhar Mahmud, asked Albert to continue teaching at his site. Iftikhar was himself a Riis Academy participant and had grown up in the program with Albert as his mentor. It was Albert who inspired Iftikhar to forego a career in medicine and follow in his footsteps by pursuing a career in youth development. Iftikhar knew firsthand the impact Albert could have on a young person. “Albert has been a great role model, teacher and a mentor to me.  He influenced so many people’s life in a positive light, I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for him; I credit all my success to him.”

Today, Albert continues to teach at Riis Academy-PS166 twice a week and at the Ravenswood community center on Saturdays – serving as a positive influence on a whole new generation of youth. And, he now has some very special assistants: brothers Joey, Jonathan and Jordan Tran.

The Tran brothers were part of the very first group of participants at our Riis Academy-PS166 program when it launched ten years ago. Their mother immediately enrolled them in Albert’s martial arts component, and they stayed with the discipline and Albert even after moving on to middle and high school. Once they were old enough, Joey and Jonathan came back to volunteer at PS166 – eventually becoming program aides and group leaders. Today all three continue to volunteer with Albert in various capacities.

Joey was inducted into the National Honor Society three years ago and is now in his second year of college at the University of Vermont where he is studying robotics. He volunteers with Albert whenever he comes home from school. Jonathan is a high school senior at the Academy of American Studies and works as a group leader and junior instructor with Albert at Riis Academy-PS166. He was also inducted into the National Honor Society last year.  Jordan is in tenth grade at the Academy of American Studies. He volunteers twice a week helping his brother Jonathan and Albert run the classes. The brothers credit Albert for many of their achievements and are grateful for the ongoing support that he has provided them. When asked how they felt about Albert, Jonathan likened him to family saying that “Family is not about blood. It is about who is there for you no matter what, and who is willing to help you given any situation.”

Any organization that is of and for the community continuously strives to elicit a sense of family in its work. Participants are encouraged to feel at home, and that is likely why so many give back to our programs, whether it is by returning to work at Riis or volunteering in some way. It is this reciprocal relationship that builds the organization and the community, and it all starts with mentors like Albert Pollard who are willing to go the extra mile to nurture and guide our youngest members.

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