The RSHM LIFE Center has been on Beekman Avenue since 1995, offering educational programs to the neediest children and their families in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.
It was founded and is run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, an international community of women religious, who began their mission in this community in 1907 when Marymount opened.
The LIFE in the Center stands for Learning Is For Everyone, and indeed learning opportunities abound at the Center. With a whole family orientation, programs range from a Parents & Tots Program for pre-schoolers, After School for kids in Kindergarten through 6th Grade, a Summer Camp, Friday Night Fever for 7-10th Graders, and English as a Second Language classes for adults. There are even support services for home-bound seniors and advocacy services for a variety of needs.
English literacy is the focus of all the educational programs, as the LIFE Center helps its clients acquire the skills they need to participate fully in life in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, and to be contributing members of our community.
Recently one of the new pre-teens joining our Friday Night Fever program summed it up. When asked whether she was going to enroll, she said: "Oh yes, I don’t want to be one of those kids that just hang out on the street on Friday nights." Instead she’ll spend the evenings with other teenagers, engaged and connected and supervised. The group has an entertainment, community service and educational focus. They aspire to take a day trip into Manhattan – somewhere that most of them have never been – and see a play. They want to have a barbecue in Kingsland Point Park, and to volunteer at Shelter Day at the Briarcliff SPCA. They have face painted at the street fair, participated in the Tarrytown Parks Clean-up, and helped out at the Y’s Healthy Kids Day.
Most of the children in Friday Night Fever came up through the After School Program which was started in response to requests from parents, many of whom are illiterate or undereducated, and are simply unable to help their own children with their schoolwork. Instructors in the After School program supervise the children with their homework and also provide tutoring in small groups to meet the children’s individual needs. The development of English language skills is the focus of the program and individual attention is the key. Computers are also a big part of the program as the Center seeks to bridge the digital divide between these children and those more affluent who have computers and Internet access at home. "Exclusion from the computer world serves to further disadvantage immigrants already on the margin," said Sister Susan Gardella, Executive Director of the RSHM LIFE Center. "It is important that the children have regular access to computers, playing learning games that reinforce their literacy and math skills, while honing their computer skills. By making learning fun and relevant we can keep children interested in education. The connection to the Center gives them a home away from home; there is always someone here they can talk to. "
The Program has been successful in its goal of supporting children’s education. Not one child who has been through the program has dropped out of high school. The children from the earliest After School Program have graduated, most are in college and come back regularly to visit. Many have worked part time in the After School Program or at Summer Camp.
A five-week summer camp is also a vital part of the LIFE Center’s service to the community. "We soon learned" said Sister Susan, "that summer time is very difficult for the Center’s poverty-level parents, many of whom already hold down two unskilled jobs as they try to create a better life for their children. Because of the nature of their work, many are able to pick up extra work during the summer making it impossible to supervise their children. Some leave their younger children at home alone while the older children roam the streets. Others send their children back to their native countries to spend the summer with relatives which has a negative impact on the families and on the children’s newly-acquired English language abilities." And so the summer camp came into being, created to keep families together, enabling adults to work and providing a supervised arena in which the children can play with their friends and enjoy the long, hot days of summer.
The program balances fun and learning, designed so that the educational pieces are largely transparent to the children while they play, swim and have experiences that their families would otherwise not have been able to provide for them.
As the RSHM LIFE Center begins its 15th year of service to the community, Sr. Susan sums it up, "The RSHM presence has been in this community for over 100 years; times have changed and so have we, but our mission has not. We will continue our mission of reaching out to those in need, empowering others to work toward their own development and liberation."