downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 Issue 42 | March 2 - 8, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Outside The Door’s entrance on Broome St.

What’s behind The Door?

By Brooke Edwards

Growing up in a rough part of Harlem, Steven Batista saw violence outside his door everyday. As a kid, he recalls just coasting by in school and being uncomfortable talking to adults, including his own parents. And Batista never dreamed he would get out. “It was like, this is life in my little neighborhood in Harlem and you’re not gonna leave this little box.”

When he was 14, Batista’s older brother told him about an after school program in Soho called The Door. Batista heard that they might be able to help him get a summer job, and so he made the 45-minute commute Downtown to see what the place was like.

That was three years ago.

Now 17, Batista has traveled to Atlanta to deliver a speech to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; he holds an internship with a doctor where he is responsible for checking patients’ vital signs; and he is hard at work choosing which college to attend in 2008, agonizing over who has the best pre-med program and the most study abroad opportunities.

“I feel like I’ve been saved,” Batista said, speaking confidently in front of several adults in a conference room at The Door last Thursday. “I feel like I was chosen to come here.”

Housed in the first three floors of 555 Broome St., near Sixth Avenue, The Door provides health care, counseling, food, a variety of academic and artistic courses, tutoring, job assistance, legal services and recreational opportunities Monday through Saturday, free of charge to any New York City resident between the ages of 12 and 21. Last year 8,642 young people came to The Door seeking one or more of these services.

During the school day, The Door also offers G.E.D. courses with the city’s Department of Education, and operates as a middle school for 35 students who have been suspended from public schools across the city for “serious infractions.”

As students walk through the doors, they enter a large open space painted a serene blue with student-made art covering the walls. They are greeted by Joseph Fontanez, in charge of checking student I.D.s. Fontanez wears a steady smile and seems to know every young person passing through the crowded entry by name.

As one young man new to The Door came through, Fontanez stopped him, shook his hand and asked his name. When the teen answered Jonathan, Fontanez replied, “Jonathan? That’s my son’s name. I’ll remember that.”

Jonathan smiled and said, “You’ll see me again.”

Students entering The Door do not pass through metal detectors. This is intentional, says Diana Morales, who was promoted to executive director last week, to “establish a sense of community.” Instead, they pass by a series of signs with mantras about respect and attending community meetings. One sign reads: “This is a neutral zone. I will keep our space free of all gang activity.”

There have been a couple of violent incidents recently involving students from The Door.

On Jan. 24, a 13-year-old boy had just left The Door program when he stabbed a Staten Island teen who had come to settle a long-standing feud, police said. The Door student was immediately arrested and the victim has since recovered.

On Feb. 1, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for throwing a chair at a Door security guard who was trying to keep him out of the school.

Dep. Inspector Anthony Bologna, the First Precinct’s commander, does not believe either of the incidents was gang related and said that The Door doesn’t have any more problems than most high schools. “They get a little wild when they are let out,” Bologna said. He smiled and shrugged, “They’re teenagers.

“To be honest,” Bologna said of The Door, “I think they help us more than they hurt us.” Bologna said that he was concerned about the program when he first took over the First Precinct, but after he looked into it, he decided, “It’s a good program. They take kids that have been kicked out of other schools. Lots of them would otherwise be on the streets or in jail.”

But Bologna did acknowledge, “I am sure there are some people who don’t want them in the neighborhood.” Hudson Square is becoming an increasingly valuable real estate market with several new developments, including preliminary construction on the Trump Soho Condo Hotel just a block away from The Door.

“We’ve always felt very welcome in our neighborhood,” said Carlos Santiago, coordinator of one of The Door’s college preparation programs. Santiago, who also grew up in Harlem, said, “For many of these kids, violence is a constant where they come from. But we set high expectations and students meet those expectations because we work with them on an individual basis and empower them to feel safe on their own terms. That’s the precursor to nonviolence.”

Batista said, “I come to The Door and I feel safe. Fights are very rare here. I come from a neighborhood where you see that stuff happening outside your door all the time. For The Door to keep that at a minimum, that’s impressive.”

The Door was founded to assist at-risk youth in 1971 by the International Center for Integrative Studies, a not-for-profit organization affiliated with the United Nations. The group wanted to address problems with drug abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and the rising high school dropout rate in the city. The program opened in January of 1972 with a staff of volunteers in a donated building on 12th St. The Door moved to its current location in 1989 and has continued to grow ever since, with 85 fulltime staff members and a steady stream of volunteers.

About three-fourths of The Door’s $8-million annual budget comes from government grants and contracts, including their partnership with the Department of Education. The rest comes from donations and rent from Unity High School and a non-profit organization.

The average age of Door clients is 18, nearly half are African American, 62 percent are female and 58 percent come from the most impoverished neighborhoods in New York City. There is also a large Hispanic population and a growing population of Chinese immigrants, gays and lesbians. The Door reports that 13 percent of its population is or has been in foster care, 27 percent dropped out of high school and 8 percent are homeless or living with friends.

Faced with this needy population, in spite of established age limits, Morales said they have a hard time turning people away. They continue to extend their hours and their age limits, providing services to former members as old as 24 and staying open until 10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

The Door does not have metal detectors and relies on signs and an appeal to responsibility to keep weapons out.

New members meet with an “intake counselor” for an interview to determine what services they will most benefit from. They are asked to attend an orientation meeting. From then on, they can access any of the services that The Door provides.

Some members come to The Door only once or twice, taking advantage of perhaps a free doctor’s exam or a hot dinner.

Others, like Shona Hairston, call The Door home.

“I have come here every day for a year and a half,” Hairston, 18, says. When asked what she plans to do after she graduates from Manhattan High School in June, Hairston replied without hesitation, “I am gonna go to John Jay College for four years and then to Fordham Law for three years. I am going to be a defense lawyer.”

Though Hairston first came to The Door for counseling, based on a recommendation from one of her school advocates, she has since used the tutoring services, taken S.A.T. and college preparation courses, used the computer lab, arranged an internship and started taking a ceramics art therapy course.

As with most school programs across the country, Morales said it is increasingly difficult for The Door to get funding for its arts programs, which some sponsors do not see as significant compared to more academic training. But, Morales said, “It’s one of the best ways to engage these young people.”

Last year The Door received $100,000 from the New York State Music Fund, an annual grant program given by the state Attorney General’s office to non-profit organizations, which they used to outfit a studio with equipment for aspiring disc jockeys and music producers. These D.J. courses are now among the most popular classes offered at The Door, with young people lining up for a chance to practice spinning on the top-of-the-line equipment.

More than half of the young people who come to The Door want help getting a job. The Door offers several different career plans targeted at different groups, including those who have dropped out of high school and those who are coming out of foster care.

“The trend is to immediately get them a job,” Morales said. But after testing incoming members, Morales said, “It turns out that 66 percent have a literacy rate below the sixth-grade level.” She said this means, “They are usually put in low-level, dead-end jobs.”

The Door provides students in its Career Pathways program 12 weeks of traditional academic training before beginning the six-week vocational education program.

Many of The Door’s career programs provide incentives for those who attend faithfully and reach their goals, including free MetroCards, stipends and job placement opportunities.

The Door works with both the GAP and Ben & Jerry’s, but Morales said they need more companies who are willing to offer jobs to young people who graduate from their career programs.

Anyone successfully placed in a position can receive ongoing support from The Door for up to two years. However, Morales said, as with their other programs, they are realizing that many of the former students need more long-term assistance. She said they are still supporting the first class that graduated from the career program three years ago.

The Door also provides young people with free legal services for civil cases, including family law and immigration issues. They are currently partnered with two private law firms who provide their services pro bono. One firm, Chadbourne & Parke, has created an ongoing endowment to The Door, where they pay one entry-level fellow to work at The Door for 18 months.

Another growing service that The Door provides is courses in English as a Second Language.

Feng Chin, 21, travels to The Door each day from Queens, but her journey started in China.

Chin was a pre-med student in college when her family decided to move to the United States last summer. When she arrived in New York City, Chin could barely speak English and had no idea how to enroll in an American college. Then she heard about E.S.L. classes at The Door from a friend.

“I don’t know where I would go if I didn’t find The Door,” Chin said. “I think The Door is the best place for me because I learn English and the arts here.” In addition to language courses, Chin has taken classes in piano and break dancing at The Door. She has also learned what she needs to do to re-enter college as a transfer student – something she didn’t know existed until her E.S.L. teacher told her about it. Now, thanks to the help she has received at The Door, Chin will be a junior when she begins at CUNY in April.

Realizing she is nearing the age limit to receive services from The Door, Chin looks a little sad for a moment, but then quickly brightens as she says, “After I turn 22, I will come back as a volunteer.”

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