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Mission Champions: Empowering Students Beyond Our Classrooms

For over five years, volunteers from Christ Church Riverdale have come together to empower Mission Society students at ELLIS Preparatory Academy. Led by Kathy Valyi, the group has offered mentoring opportunities, provided tutoring help, and even organized a coat drive during two New York City winters. When COVID hit, they adapted to virtual classrooms, helping educators provide more individualized attention to students in various subjects. These connections have meant so much to the school community and volunteers alike, building foundational relationships and supporting our students’ dreams beyond high school.

Though the collaboration has grown and changed to fit the needs of the school, one constant has been the distribution of scholarships to graduating seniors. Early in the partnership, Kathy learned from ELLIS principal, Norma Vega, that the school had one of their most successful college placement classes to date. However, thirteen young people couldn’t afford to accept offers from excellent schools. The generous financial aid from the colleges still didn’t cover bus fare, childcare, or the ability to outfit dorm rooms. Kathy immediately leapt into action, raising money for smaller grants – ranging from $500 to $4,000 – that could go towards these necessary costs of living.

In the first year, and each year since, these microgrants have given every student the ability to freely pursue their post-graduation opportunities.

These ongoing efforts by Kathy, the volunteer group, and our Mission Society educators have meant that our young people are thriving after graduation. As Kathy shared, “Not only has this been financially supportive, but the students understand that there is somebody who cares about their lives and well-being.” She discussed how many of our ELLIS students have recently immigrated, and that there is often a fork in the road when they arrive – they can either know that they are supported no matter what, or feel they have no choice but to fight for their future. To her, one of the ways the volunteer program is most impactful is that they can assure students that they’re loved and they belong.

Today, Kathy and ELLIS Program Director Jonathan Pinque are evolving the volunteer-student relationship once again to further its impact. Together, they are developing a program that will not only allow young people to take their final steps into college and career offers with confidence, but will also continue supporting them once they officially leave ELLIS. After identifying the needs of students, Jonathan and Kathy work to connect them directly with a network of professionals who can speak to their interests and concerns. From honing interview skills to learning about the day-to-day of their desired career, these meetings provide students with the right people and resources to help them network. They also spark exploratory conversations that can give students their first step into their lives beyond our schools.

This deeper and even more connected approach has made new dreams possible for our students and it has had a profound effect on the volunteers as well. Kathy emphasized that “all of my volunteers have had this hugely gratifying experience of getting to know young people who are incredibly inspiring in their dedication to a better future. These relationships bridge some of the huge divides we have in this world.” There is no better affirmation about how much power there is when you bring together people from various backgrounds. Everyone benefits – from our students, to our educators, to the volunteer professionals. The meetings foster understanding, expand minds, and encourage vital new learning for every participant.

Kathy hopes that the partnership will continue to grow well into the future, transforming into a library of resources that will benefit generations of ELLIS students. The collaboration has been instrumental in opening new horizons for our students, and showing them that they matter. We are looking forward to seeing the many ways the project continues to flourish and support young people as they begin the next steps of their journeys.

Thank you to Kathy Valyi for speaking with us, and sharing the story of your incredible work alongside ELLIS. Thank you to the friends and neighbors of ELLIS who have volunteered for the last five years, and continue to connect with our students. We would also like to thank our educators, Jonathan Pinque, Jacqueline Peña, and ELLIS principal Norma Vega, for all of their efforts facilitating this invaluable partnership.

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