College student, child of immigrants, credits growth to neighborhood center

Erika Sanchez, 21. (Submitted photo)

Erika Sanchez
Age:
21
Who she is: Student at Brooklyn College
Lives in: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sister Camille:  There's a high wall around the Convent of Mercy in the heart of Brooklyn. The former motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy has been a landmark since 1862. Over time it has served as an orphanage and a residence for children whose parents were unable to care for them. Today it houses the main agency for Mercy Home, which provides for developmentally disabled adults who live in 13 supervised homes in Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau Counties.

Behind the protective wall on a busy street is a beautiful garden, about the size of a city block. In that garden is the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center, a free-standing, two-story building with multiple services for the neighborhood people. One of its most important services is an afterschool program that provides homework help and enrichment for the children, many of whom have parents who labor as recent immigrants from faraway places. Erika Sanchez, 21, is a graduate of that program.

How old were you when you began attending the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center?

Sanchez: I was around 9 years old.

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What school and grade were you in?

I was attending P.S. 157 and I was in fourth grade.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S.A. in 2001. I was 8 years old. I lived in Fort Greene for about five years and then moved to Bedford Stuyvesant. I've been living there for nine years.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Yes, I have two younger brothers. They both attended the after school program. Their names are Jefrin Sanchez, 18, and Jesus Sanchez, 14.

What did you learn from the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center?

I learned to have a family in the afterschool [program]. I came to understand time management as being respectful not only to ourselves but with everyone else. Thinking back, I remember being able to have a good time while learning — always having someone around for help when I didn't understand. When my homework was checked, which it always was, I never just received the answers but I was helped, guided to find my answers. Although there were about 30 of us I felt that each one of us mattered.

How did the center compare with your public school?

The center was very up to date [compared] with what was going on in the school. Compared to our school, the center had a great learning environment. We had a lot of books available to read. Everyone was assigned jobs. This could be as a line leader, or one who would throw out the garbage, or who held the door, or served as snack monitors, and so on. There were students that came in for service hours and just about all of them were helpful. It felt like they wanted to be there, since everyone was welcome.

Are you still in school?

I am currently enrolled in Brooklyn College and expect to graduate in December of this year.

That's a good school, Erika. I taught there for 20 years. Did you make friends at the center?

I made a lot of friends there. I'm still in contact with many of them.

Can you identify a teacher or volunteer at the center who was particularly helpful to you?

I can identify multiple teachers, volunteers at the center who were very helpful. Starting with Ms. Emily Figueroa, who was not only a member of the center but also of the church I attend. She was always showing how much she cared and wanted us to get far in life. I remember Ms. Marcela, who came in and immediately offered her attention and assistance to us. Ms. Marva Rudder was the one who was mostly with the older kids.

What were some of the best things about being there?

Some of the best things about being there, besides getting our homework done, was being able to be in a place that was always safe. It was good not having to go home to be alone while our parents were at work. For many of us the center was the most safe place of our day. I can say that for many it very likely still is. I can also remember performing for the Sisters of Mercy and enjoying that very much.

Do you now offer any help to today's children at the center?

I have not offered any help lately because of my college schedule, but it would be something that I would love to do.

Did you enjoy any field trips from the center?

I loved the field trips! I remember going to Mets games a few times. Sr. Kathleen is a Mets fan and got us to go to some games. Not only were the trips with the center great, I remember the yearly ceremony and how much fun the activities were. It was amazing to see all of our families together, children running freely on the grass and enjoying the many events held just for us. We use to have DBMC shirts to help us stay together.

Where do you go to church?

I go to church down the street at St. Lucy - St. Patrick.

What is your career goal?

I am currently trying to be a teacher from grades K-6 and a psychologist.

What do you believe God is asking of you?

I find it amazing how after all the lovely experiences in the center, so many days and memories shared, that I am now asked to be part of the center's 20th anniversary and am invited to go whenever I can to help. It is in my heart to help and to never let go of this place, where I spent much of my childhood. It feels as if I always go back, God is asking me to continue being who I am, helping others, caring and never turning back as I get stronger. This is something I am willing to continue to work for.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at the center?

It feels as if every time was a good time. My experiences do not overlap. If I had to choose I would say our Christmas performance. Practicing the songs and being together was always beautiful. We were always well prepared. It was so much fun and we could see how much we were appreciated.

If you were asked to write a public service announcement inviting parents to enroll their children at the DBMC, what would you say?

I would tell them to go for it, as their children would be very safe. Every one of the staff and volunteers is so professional and there for the kids. It is worth it to the parents who pick up their children from this after-school program. They will not be alone at home and will get their homework checked. The center is like a big family. Those who work there address all difficulties with respect and show that they care and only want the best. Besides being safe it is beneficial as it eliminates stress for the parents. Because the children have already done their homework, they can get home to have supper, shower, watch television and go to sleep early. If the parent does not understand the homework, the center is a great help because it guarantees that the child will be prepared for the next day. The center is very consistent, with the service provided to the children as well as the neighborhood. Those who become part of this family will not be disappointed.

Thank you, Erika.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.


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