Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York in the 1990’s was interesting to say the least. My parents were first generation immigrants from Mexico with 4 children. They believed that if they worked hard at their hotel jobs, they could provide a better life for me and my siblings. Other than placing us all in one of the local parochial schools, they were not very informed of all the available educational options. What they did know is that if it was a private catholic school, their kids should be alright.
As parishioners of Nativity Church, my parents knew Fr. Jack Podsiadlo well. He celebrated the Spanish mass on Sunday mornings and would always have lunch with parishioners in the church hall afterwards. They knew that he ran a small neighborhood school for middle-school boys. Some of my friends were applying during their 5th grade year and eventually I signed up as well.
In the summer of 1996, I was in Lake Placid, NY as a rookie 7th grader in Camp Monserrate. For 7 weeks, I was a member of Cabin 2, the Knights. We played group activities, cleaned our cabins, learned to swim, canoed on Lake Placid, and hiked the highest peaks in the Adirondacks. We had nightly group discussions about grit, leadership, and teamwork. Little did I know that this summer was the beginning of the life I now lead.
NativityMiguel schools are special because of the dedicated faculty and staff. My personal and professional career has been marked by people recognizing my potential and pushing me to reach it. My counselors at camp, many of whom were graduates, pushed me to be a leader. As a student in Nativity, I was pushed academically by the teachers. I couldn’t just do the work right before class or not study for quizzes or exams. I learned that I had to do more than just rely on my smarts. That rigor and high expectations prepared me for high school.
As a senior in high school, the Graduate Support Director took a bunch of us on a college tour in the fall and visited the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. Before that trip, I didn’t even know where Worcester was located. When it came time to apply, he told me to make sure Holy Cross was on my list. Showing my college applications to my college guidance counselor in schon, she was perplexed as to why I would have Holy Cross as a choice. “Not sure you have the grades to get in,” I remember her telling me.
Not only did I get accepted, but I also received the best financial aid package out of all the schools I applied to. Four years later, as a senior year at Holy Cross, that same Graduate Support Director called me to say it was his final year at Nativity. He wanted to leave the program in good hands and offered me the position. I decided to give back to the school that gave me so much for at least a year or two. I thought I would go to law school afterwards.
Needless to say, I do not have a law degree. I realized while working at Nativity Mission Center how fortunate I was to have been part of such an amazing school, as a student, graduate, and staff member. The amount of time and dedication from teachers and staff, the amazing educational and transformative opportunities it provided me and over 500 graduates was unique.
So when I agreed to work at Nativity after graduating from Holy Cross, I wanted to ensure that these opportunities would continue to be available to the youth of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now I want to help ensure that these opportunities are not only available but also enhanced for the benefit of all students and graduates of the NativityMiguel Coalition.
I recently returned to Camp Monserrate back in July. As a member of the Nativity Mission Center Alumni Association, we have gone up to the camp to help set up the site or with any projects before students from St. Ignatius (Bronx, NY) come up. We’ve painted the kitchen and dining hall, purchased a new washing machine, and cleared debris from paths that campers use to get around the grounds. As you enter the main hall, you’re greeted by a bright banner that reads “Opportunity is Nativity’s gift to you. What you do with that opportunity is your gift to Nativity.“ It’s a motto that every camper has ingrained in them.
We’ve been granted the amazing opportunity to transform the lives of our students and graduates. It is an honor and a privilege to join you as we strive to break the cycle of poverty through education. I look forward to continuing this mission with all members and affiliates of the NativityMiguel Coalition.