Recent News

March 12, 2018

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.

Recent Grant Awards

Riis Settlement continues to strengthen and expand its scope of services to meet a wide range of community needs. Our efforts are buoyed by a number of generous funders whose grants allow us to both sustain existing services and develop new initiatives. We are enormously grateful to the following funders in particular for their recent generous awards:

Our thanks to the Ravenswood Generating Station for a grant of $50,000 in general operating support.

Thanks to the Center for Court Innovation for selecting Riis Settlement to implement the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety—2017 Neighborhood Stat Grant Program at Queensbridge Houses. This program will bring community members together to identify public safety issues and create and implement action plans that address them.

Thank you to the New York Women’s Foundation for a $60,000 Resilience-NYC grant that will allow us to weave a stronger advocacy and community organizing component into our Immigrant Services program.

Thank you to The Richard Davoud Donchian Foundation for a $5,000 grant in support of our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program at I.S. 126 Albert Shanker School for Visual and Performing Art.

Thanks to The New York Bar Foundation for a $5,000 grant in support of our free immigration legal services program.

Thank you to Consolidated Edison for a generous award of $10,000 is support of our STEM program at our Riis Acdemy-PS177 campus.

Thank you to NYC Service for selecting Riis Settlement as a host site for the 2018-2019 NYC Civic Corps Program Year, which will allow us to continue building our volunteer capacity.

And, finally, our thanks to the Teagle Foundation for a grant of $75,000 over a three year period in support of our Riis Academy College Access Program!

None of the work we do would be possible without our supporters, and we are sincerely grateful to them all.

Staff Spotlight


Get to know one of our many dedicated staff members in the following Q&A with Andre Conquest, youth worker at our Riis Academy-Queensbridge campus:

Q. How long have you worked at Riis Settlement?
I have been working at Riis Settlement since 2015.

Q. How did you come to work at Riis?
Well I first started working at the Riis Academy- Queensbridge summer camp as part of the Summer Youth Employment Program. I really enjoyed what I was doing, so I asked the director, Ms. Franklin, for a permanent job and she said yes!

Q. What is your current role?
I work with the youth in our elementary program.  I prepare the snacks for the kids, help them with their homework, and teach them visual arts.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in that role?
My biggest challenge is getting the kids to take me seriously. It’s ok to laugh and joke sometimes but the moment a kid takes you for a joke they will walk all over you, so I have to be a little stern at times.

Q. What is the biggest reward?
My biggest reward is seeing the joy on the kids’ faces when we complete a task.

Q. What are your future plans?
I am currently studying criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College. My goal is to become a paralegal and work in a law firm.

Q. What drew you to the field of law?
My grandfather studied law and went on to become a detective. He is retired now, but I have always been fascinated with the way the system works, and he really inspired me to want to study law.

Q. Other than your grandfather, do you have a role model or someone who has mentored you in your life?
Yes, my mother and father have definitely helped a lot in my growing experience. They have helped me become the man I am today.

The Western Queens Healthy Families Coalition

We often take for granted our ability to go about our daily life with relative ease, and yet for those who suffer from mental illness, these daily tasks can be painfully overwhelming and the resulting feelings of isolation can be debilitating. While the national conversation around mental illness has increased in recent years, there still remains a certain amount of stigma attached to the issue. That stigma can vary from community to community and can make it all the more difficult to sustain the conversation. Finding meaningful solutions that work at the community level are crucial to overcoming these barriers.

Last October, under the guidance of representatives from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), Riis Settlement joined with a number of other community stakeholders to form the Western Queens Healthy Families Coalition — a collaborative aimed at sparking an open and honest conversation around the issue, promoting greater mental health at every age, and connecting community members to vital mental health resources that are close to home.

As a first step in this effort, Riis Settlement hosted a Mental Health First Aid training last November that was open to the community. The all-day workshop was facilitated by trainers from DOHMH, as part of the city’s ThriveNYC initiative, which uses a public health approach to begin changing the way people think about mental health.

The workshop provided more than thirty community members with proven practices to help them recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental illness and substance misuse. Attendees also learned how to listen without judgment, and respond to and help someone in distress until they can get the professional care they may need. At the end of the day, all attendees received a three-year certificate in Mental Health First Aid.

Ms. Gail Brown Ms. Gail Brown, Director of Senior Services

One of the attendees was Ms. Gail Brown, director of our Senior Services program. In her role, Ms. Brown interacts on a daily basis with a population that is at an increased risk for depression. Many of our seniors live alone. With no family members to interact with and varying degrees of mobility, one can easily succumb to isolation. Our Senior Services program offers older adults in the community the opportunity to participate in a wide range of social and recreational activities, which can, as Ms. Brown stated, “increase social interaction, reduces the risk of depression, and improve the social and emotional well-being of those that we serve.” However, she also noted the importance of having a staff that is trained to spot the signs of mental distress and can engage in successful early intervention.

Ms. Brown recalled a recent episode where staff members learned that one particular participant had been diagnosed with cancer and that another had stopped taking her life-saving medication. As the first point of aid, they used their training to offer comfort, guidance, and case assistance to both individuals.  Ms. Brown expressed that the training had shown her that “we are all empowered to help those who may need it.”

Looking ahead, the Western Queens Healthy Families Coalition will continue raising awareness around mental health issues and empowering community members to both seek and offer help when needed.

January 11, 2018

Meeting the Legal Needs of our Immigrant Community

Last year marked a busy time for our Immigrant Services team. Check out their latest newsletter, which details their efforts to meet the legal needs of our community members through a series of legal clinics and the important role that volunteers played in that work. If you would like to volunteer in Riis’ upcoming naturalization clinic, which is scheduled for Feb 10th, please click here!