The Bronx is a section of New York known mainly for its social problems. If one were to believe the stereotypes, “drugs, crime and poverty” are the only things true about the Bronx. But the reality is much richer.
Root of the problem
John Deida doesn’t deny that his neighborhood in the Bronx suffers from these problems. But he thinks the principle obstacle preventing young people from escaping their situation is what he calls “cultural poverty.” Many boys in the Bronx, explains John, seem to have no interest in improving their situation; they flee from the effort required and seek the easy path. John took part in the Crotona Achievement Center program some years ago, when he was an adolescent. Later he lent a hand as a volunteer, while studying linguistics in the university.
“When I was a volunteer at Crotona,” recalls John, “I frequently had the students read articles from The Economist or the Wall Street Journal out loud, and discussed their content with them. It usually involved a topic of national or international interest.” He found it a good way to help the boys focus their attention and improve their capacity for comprehension, vocabulary, and pronunciation. But it was also, as Dave Holzweiss (one of the Crotona directors and present head of the foundation that supports the center, the South Bronx Educational Foundation) explains, a way of opening their eyes to the needs of others and instilling positive moral attitudes such as self-control and a spirit of service.
Crotona Center, which arose as an initiative of some faithful of Opus Dei and their friends, is located at 843 Crotona Park North. A few years ago, a generous donation from the UPS company provided for the renovation of the house on that site, which was in poor shape.
Boys between the ages of ten and eighteen take part in the activities at Crotona, eager to improve their academic and human formation. “We’re not here just to provide academic help to the boys, or to offer them entertainment. Our mission is to help them to grow as a person, to be more demanding on themselves, to do something great with their lives,” said Eddie Llull, activities coordinator for Crotona.
“During one period in my life,” recalls Kevin, a Crotona student, “what I was seeking from my school mates was their attention, not their friendship. Actually I didn’t even know what friendship was. I knew that if I did something crazy in class the others would laugh, and so to feel accepted I did crazy things. In Crotona I learned, especially by experience, that friendship is a relationship based on truth, love, and respect for personal freedom. How has this helped me? Well now, for example, I try to understand my friends as they are and not as I would like them to be. It’s strange, but the better I get to know them, the more I appreciate the good that is in them.”
Sometimes the tutors are the only positive role models the boys have in their lives. It’s not infrequent that the tutors may even come to represent a father figure to them, since families in this neighborhood are often not intact. In any case, the Crotona staff always tries to transmit a positive vision of what the family should be. The boys are encouraged to feel themselves part of an extended family and to think about the needs of others, to be concerned about everyone around them.
At Crotona, the regular activities during the school year are complemented by special programs that take place on Saturdays and in the summer. These include talks with well-known professionals, visits to companies and research centers, etc. Not long ago, the Crotona students, under the direction of an art major, organized an exposition of paintings.
Romana, n. 44, January-June 2007, p. 154-155.