Leadership school works on rec center

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Nearly two years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a group of students at a high school just south of ground zero is taking a long view towards improving the quality of life Downtown.

Last year, a teacher at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, at 90 Trinity Place, asked the students to reflect on how they would like to contribute to the Lower Manhattan rebuilding effort. The answer came easily to the group of five: they wanted to help create a recreation center in the area.

“In the beginning it was kind of a selfish sentiment, because we don’t have a gym,” said Sasha Lebron, 18, who will be a senior in the fall. “But then we thought it would benefit the community—it would bring jobs Downtown.”

The idea for a recreation center grew out of the students’ frustration at not having a fully equipped gym. For more than eighteen months after 9/11, students could not exercise outside in the Battery Park City ballfields, which were closed after the attacks. So in good weather and bad, students exercised in a makeshift basement gym near the building’s boiler.

The students selected for the rebuilding project joined forces with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension in New York City, an organization committed to bringing educational opportunities to those who have traditionally had less access to resources. The students named their initiative the Phoenix Program.

“We became very concerned with just how displaced the youth were, but in the whole rebuilding project no one was listening to the voice of young people,” said Linda Nessel, the director of workforce development at the Cornell extension.

Last fall, two of the Phoenix Program students attended a leadership conference in Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell professors advised them that a community survey would be an important first step in planning a recreation center.

Today, the students have gathered about 1,000 responses to the survey that they designed, and they hope to receive an additional 1,500 this summer. The survey can be found online through the Phoenix Program Web site at http://www.cce.cornell.edu/phoenix/.

Students will submit the results of their survey to the 92nd St. Y, which in March won approval from Community Board 1 to begin planning a cultural and recreation center somewhere in Lower Manhattan. Cornell extension workers contacted the 92nd St. Y this spring, after an internship coordinator noticed an article in the Downtown Express on the 92nd St. Y’s proposal. The survey project was well under way at the time, and students welcomed a practical application of their efforts. Officials at the Y also recognized an opportunity for collaboration, according to Nessel.

“They were incredibly responsive,” Nessel said of the Y.

Alix Friedman, director of Public Relations for the 92nd St. Y, did not respond to questions on the survey by press time. On Friday, she refused to comment on the Y’s progress in planning its Lower Manhattan center.

Madelyn Wils, chairperson of C.B. 1, said last week that the 92nd St. Y had hired a consulting firm to do a feasibility study on the proposed Lower Manhattan center and was “absolutely enthusiastic” about the project.

Phoenix Program students understand that the center will not be completed until 2005 or 2006, well after they graduate. True to their school’s name, they are excited to play a role in revitalizing their community.

“I really love what I do,” said Lebron, who is working on the project through her summer vacation. She added that she has enjoyed the media outreach work she has done for the program so much that she is considering pursuing a career in public relations.

Lebron was the only Phoenix Program member in town last week. The other members are Hilary Saunders, Annie Moy, James Wu, and Yulia Kosiw.

Elizabeth@DowntownExpress.com


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