STAND BY ME

Danny Tejada’s story reveals a strong commitment to mentoring young people from difficult circumstances like those he experienced growing up. When he was seven, Danny’s family was evicted from their apartment and eventually moved into a housing project in East New York—his mother, father, sister, and brother in a two bedroom apartment. “There was urine in the elevators, roaches all over the place. It was always dangerous to walk there at night.” His father worked as a stock boy in a supermarket; his mother stayed at home.

When he was 12, his grandmother died. She had been his support and her home his refuge. “After she passed away, my parents stopped being involved in our education and doings. They didn’t go to school to talk to our teachers; we didn’t get any praise for doing good.” They drank two six packs of beer a day and got into arguments that sometimes escalated into physical fights. Danny tried to be the peacemaker.

Danny also tried to step in as a parent for his siblings. He considers his younger brother his first mentee. It was not a success. “He didn’t want to listen. It was frustrating. He’s 21 now, trying to get his GED.” His sister left home and is in foster care with a cousin. Danny takes her every other weekend and says he’s very proud of her for doing well in school. Danny saw new opportunities when the Director of Pace University’s Upward Bound Program, which helps disadvantaged youth prepare for college, spoke at his high school. “I never even heard about college until they came along. I wanted to get into that program so bad that I got a recommendation from every one of my teachers.”

Accepted, he took classes during the summer and on Saturdays during the academic year. He wrote his college essay before starting his senior year. Doing a search on scholarships, he came across CDF’s Beat the Odds award.

“I used to stutter a lot and speaking at the Beat the Odds celebration was the first time I spoke in front of a crowd. It encouraged me to speak more about my experiences and work on my voice.” He attended Skidmore College. He majored in American studies with a focus in diversity. In college, he became passionate about mentoring, joining the Saratoga Mentoring Program, a division of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. After graduating, he continued mentoring through an email-based program called iMentor. In it, he developed a relationship with Gaetan Lamy, a young Haitian immigrant who was a junior at a high school in Brooklyn. He encouraged him to go to college and worked with him on the college application process. Gaetan is now attending Long Island University in Brooklyn.

Two years’ worth of their email exchanges are collected in a book, Different Families, Still Brothers. In the introductory essay, Danny encourages those from impoverished backgrounds to mentor and those who don’t know what it’s like to be poor to do research to better help those in poverty. Daniel now works at the Pace University Liberty Partnerships Program, which provides academic help, college and jobs counseling, social skills building, and cultural enrichment to high school students. He also teaches at Pace’s Upward Bound program, where he created an activism class called “Agent of Change.”