Red Hook Initiative
The lobby of the Red Hook Initiative Center teems with energy on a sunny afternoon in early September. It is the first day of school. A huddle of girls discusses the day as each fills out a time sheet, putting her name beside the title of health educator.
More than 2,000 people a year walk through RHI’s door. The community center offers help ranging from food stamps to job advice. But the organization specializes in youth programs. RHI has spent a decade shaping its program that helps youth move from middle school toward college or a job in a neighborhood where half of residents live below the poverty line.
RHI’s program addresses each facet of their life from health and mental well-being to math skills and resume writing. About 200 young people between the ages of 10 and 24—most of whom reside in the Red Hook Houses, the largest housing project in Brooklyn—are taking part in this program to break the cycle of poverty in Red Hook. Jill Eisenhard, RHI’s founder and executive director, greets each by name.
“This is a long-term relationship,” explains Eisenhard. “It’s kind of like joining a family.”
This afternoon, the girls will begin a year-long program that trains young people 14 to 18 years old about issues from menstruation to HIV and sexual decision-making. They go on to teach workshops to young people in Red Hook, as well as offer counseling and accompany others to doctor’s appointments.
For many gathered this afternoon, today is their first-ever day of work.
Brooklyn Community Foundation has helped make this possible with $275,000 in grants since 2003. A $50,000 capacity building grant this year went to staff development and training, enhancing evaluation protocols, and implementation of a new fundraising plan. This boosts both programming and the local economy. All but four members of the 60-person staff live in Red Hook, which means $450,000 returns to the neighborhood through each year’s payroll.
“The fact that the Brooklyn Community Foundation is willing to do general operating support—there are no words for how important that is in the non-profit world,” says Eisenhard.
RHI’s sits on Hicks Street and W. 9th Street, kitty-corner to the Red Hook Houses. The building was a milestone for the organization—RHI now operates in the heart of the community it serves.
A $40,000 challenge grant from the Community Foundation in 2009, matched by $10,000 raised by the residents of Red Hook Houses, made this possible. Those dollars, scarce in this community, show how fundamental RHI has become to the neighborhood. RHI is a door to the future of Red Hook.
A little after 4 p.m., a ninth grader strolls through the door, chatting on the phone. She has come, like the others that day, to fill out her first time sheet. She gabs for a minute more, then cuts the conversation off. “I got to call you back,” she says. “I’m at work.”