One need not be an actual grandfather to volunteer with the Grandpas United mentoring program.
“All it takes to be successful is for role models to step up and provide leadership,” said Frank Williams, director of the White Plains Youth Bureau, who established the program with Jim Isenberg in 2018. “Young people need men in their lives to provide guidance, direction and support.”
For now, the granddads gather in Ossining, Peekskill, Port Chester, White Plains and New Rochelle. Williams plans an expansion to Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Poughkeepsie and the rest of the nation.
In Ossining, the Youth Bureau at the Joseph G. Caputo Community Center is the main gathering spot, although the Grandpas also fan out into the schools.
Some read books to pre-k and kindergartners or play music for first and second graders. Middle school interaction centers on board games, and Donato Giuseppi, a former banker, teaches financial literacy to high school students.
“I’m a science guy, so it was interesting to hear about the importance of managing my money,” said Thomas Cong, 17, a leader with the village’s Youth Advisory Board and founder of the Youth Council at the Caputo Center.
Jamar Brown, Youth Bureau program organizer, coordinates the Grandpas, who meet for coffee every other Monday to plan and discuss programming.
One of the most successful interactions is with My Brother’s Keeper, a national organization that operates a branch at the high school involving around 60 young people.
“We do team-building exercises and games to get conversations going and break the ice,” said Brown. “The goal is to provide small-group and one-on-one mentorship, but it takes time to build the trust.”
New to the job, he inherited an intact system, but is figuring out how to maximize the program’s value and “put the puzzle together,” he said.
At a recent holiday gathering at the Caputo Center attended by four Grandpas, a dozen high school students and Youth Bureau staff, young and older circulated with remarkable fluidity and rapport.
John Ferris and Mia Uzcategui-Dommar, 15, discussed the Middle East crisis. Giuseppi, the banker, offered career advice and Elvis Crespo, 17, recruited Grandpas to sit for video interviews, which he plans to post on his social media channels.
In Peekskill, Tuesday McDonald, director of the city’s Youth Bureau, is soft-launching the program. Last Fall, the agency sponsored a bowling night and visit to the Cortlandt Town Center movie theater that attracted dozens of participants.
She also wants to introduce a chess program. “Sitting down and slowing the time with players from different generations is good for our volunteers and young scholars,” she said.
Serious students include Zachary Allen and Kevin Brown, both 18 and freshmen at Alfred State College.
To achieve success with the Grandpa program in Ossining, it is vital to “let the youth lead the conversation,” said Jamar Brown at the Ossining Youth Bureau.
“They’re not their therapist, parent, teacher or social worker. The best thing we can do is help them set goals and listen while they talk through their decision-making process.”