Bronx-based Arthur Project program redefines youth mentoring

This piece was originally in The Bronx Times, you can find it here.
By Jason Cohen

The Arthur Project, based in The Bronx, has found a way to redefine youth mentoring in this new era.

Cofounded by Liz Murray, whose life story was made into a book and Emmy-nominated television film, “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story,” The Arthur Project uses chronic absenteeism as a basis for program eligibility, provides therapeutic mentoring services to middle school students and their families to work toward more positive outcomes in school and at home.

Pascale Sykes Foundation is a supporter of The Arthur Project and helped make their transition to online programs during the COVID-19 crisis.

Most students, many Black and Latinx, remain enrolled in the program this summer and are working with clinically-trained mentors on activities like one to one mentoring, moderated discussions on current news and town hall-style events, where students analyze and present on issues that are important to them, such as racial justice, police violence, unemployment, education and housing.

“We are very much driven from the bottom up,” said Jessica Greenawalt, executive director of the program. “We take very seriously what kids, parents and our school partners think. These relationships are like two-way relationships. Everybody benefits from it in some way.”

Greenawalt spoke with the Bronx Times about the program and its impact on kids. The Arthur Project, which has partnered Richard Green middle school and the North Bronx School for Empowerment, uses graduate social work student to mentor teens and they meet one to two times a week and on Saturdays to do community outreach.

“We know students who are chronically absent are likely to have their challenges,” Greenawalt explained.

While it is not easy to get them all to enlist in the program, the ones that do get to participate reap the benefits, she said.

According to Greenawalt, a major reason why the Arthur Project has been successful is that the mentors are not volunteer based, but rather young adults who are trained to deal with kids.

Each student has a different mentor over their three years in the program.

“We have these committed social worker students who are going to stay with us,” she stressed.

When COVID-19 arrived in March, program organizers adapted and began to do everything virtually. Greenawalt said she and her colleagues were worried there would be less participation, but much to their surprise, the majority of the kids have been present.

She noted they are concerned about some families as the staff as not been able to reach them.

“It’s been an adjustment,” Greenawalt said. “We want to be able to address the needs of our students and families.”

The program has garnered such a reputation there is a waiting list to join.

Moms Vanessa Graciani and Cassandra Quick spoke about the impact it has had on their sons. Graciani’s son Raymond Dejesus is entering ninth grade and just finished the Arthur Project this past school year.

Graciani told the Bronx Times Dejesus was often late to school and bullied, so this gave him an outlet where he could communicate and feel good.

“He was really struggling and feeling bad about himself,” she said. “He’s very self conscious and hesitant to ask for help.”

Quick’s son Chance Lowrie is heading into eighth grade at Leaders of Tomorrow this fall and in his third year with the Arthur Project.

She feels the mentoring has given him “a sense of belonging” because it was hard for him to transition from elementary school to middle school. Quick stressed that having graduate students as mentors to her son has given her peace of mind.

“As a parent, you are nervous about who you hand your child over to,” she said. “For them to have mentors who are actually grad students, it makes you feel more comfortable as a parent.”