Social Impact

Fellows participate n the tomato harvest at the Food Project in Boston

Fellows Gather in Boston for Four Days of Professional Development

Special thanks to Jesse McLaughlin, 2024 FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon Fellow​

Current Fellows recently gathered in Boston for four days of professional development and immersion in the world of social impact.

After traveling from NYC and Philadelphia, Fellows arrived in Boston on Monday, met up at the Museum of Science for a variety of group activities, and then had dinner together at their Airbnb. One Fellow said, “it was so great to finally meet everyone in person and have time to get to know each other.”

On Tuesday, the cohort visited The Food Project in Dorchester where they participated in farm chores and learned about food security. The Fellows managed to clear an entire section of tomato plants nearing the end of their season, but not before picking the last of the harvest for distribution at local farmers’ markets. The Fellows then took time off to explore Boston’s iconic 2.5 mile-Freedom Trail, grab dinner along the water, and do a little cannoli taste-testing. When asked which iconic cannoli she preferred, one Boston Fellow exclaimed: “Mike’s!”


“It was so great to finally meet everyone in person and have time to get to know each other.”

On Wednesday, the Fellows met with senior leadership from Jumpstart to hear about their professional journeys and about the impact of early education on children’s lives. The Fellows learned Jumpstart’s policy work and had a tour of the Massachusetts Statehouse.  (You can read about one Fellow’s perspective on that work in a previous post.)

After lunch, the Fellows headed off to Breakthrough of Greater Boston where they learned about the organization, spoke with the Executive Director, and led mock interviews with high school seniors. The Fellows then had supper in Harvard Square and a special birthday celebration for one of the first-year Fellows who said he “felt even more supported and connected to [his] other fellows on this special day away from home.


Thursday’s destination was the Museum of Science where equity in STEM education and enrichment were key topics. The Fellows had the opportunity to lead activity stations in hands-on chemistry projects for high school students as part of the Museum’s High School Science Series. The Fellows met with the President of the Museum and had time to explore the Museum including touring the live animal care center. There was a lot of lively conversation and questions—NYC Audubon and Audubon Mid-Atlantic Fellows were particularly thrilled to be able to see Cobalt the Blue Jay up close and personal in the care center.

The day ended with dinner at the Boston-area home of a Trustee, a chance to meet several alumni Fellows, and to enjoy the company of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship community over a delicious meal and s’mores cooked over a fire pit. One alumna Fellow who attended said that she “enjoyed getting to meet the new fellows and reconnect with everyone. I’m forever grateful for the fellowship and how it helped set me up for many amazing years at my non-profit.” 

On Friday, Fellows reflected on what they learned and took part in closing activities before heading home. “Inspired, committed, rejuvenated, and connected to the FAO Fellowship community” were some of the words Fellows used to describe how they were feeling about the retreat.

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Reconnecting with Myself through Connecting with Community

For the majority of my life, I have existed in predominantly white spaces, as I mostly grew up in a wealthy town in California and then moved east to attend an Ivy League university. Despite having roommates, friends, family, and peers with varying identities and experiences, the people inhabiting these spaces tend to still share specific traits. These traits, including that we generally all have the privilege to choose these places to exist in, greatly shape the social environment.

In many ways, occupying these spaces drew out my insecurities: in my ability to lead despite being a rather reserved person, but also about my ethnic identity as a Mexican American. I experience many privileges associated with whiteness and, by existing in these predominantly white areas, lack certain experiences central to Latinidad. Even while understanding that Latinidad is a diverse identity in and of itself, as a pale-skinned, privileged Mexican American who has never visited Mexico and does not actively speak Spanish, I grew up questioning my right to my own identity.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style.

In moving to Boston for the FAO Schwarz Fellowship, I did not necessarily expect to find comfort with myself and my identities. My main intention was to find a community through The Food Project’s work and help it increase its own food sovereignty. However, my first summer in the Fellowship has been a warm welcome into a community unlike any I have experienced before. The summer program at The Food Project, a six-week work preparation program for high school students involving farmwork and workshops on identity and social justice, also focuses on establishing positive, supportive relationships across the large group of students and their college-aged leaders.

Refreshingly, building my own relationships with my summer co-workers and the youth felt natural and comfortable compared to doing so in the competitive and often misunderstanding worlds I have inhabited before. The diversity across the group — not only in terms of culture, race, and experiences, but also in terms of interests and personalities — gave me the opportunity to find different ways of connecting with each person. The general sense of care for others in the group, despite such differences, allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I could still be my natural, more reserved self at times, and I could make jokes and friendships with the youth in my group, all even as I led them. I could connect with the other leaders through an identity I had been so unsure of previously, as I often chatted with one of the other group leaders about shared experiences from our Mexican American culture.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style. Moreover, being able to implement that leadership style, rather than a traditional notion of leadership socially constructed around the traits of cisgender, extroverted, white men, I gained immense confidence in myself.

Having a community of support and care which embraced my individuality allowed me to become a stronger support for it in return, while also helping heal personal challenges of my own. Through this first summer as the FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project, I have already learned more about how reciprocal relationships of empowerment can benefit everyone involved, and I hope to continue embracing and sharing that lesson as I continue my time with the Fellowship.


Picture of Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa (she/her) is the Build-a-Garden Manager and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project in Boston.


Direct Service at Reading Partners New York

One of my favorite parts of my role at Reading Partners is the direct service component, where I get to tutor elementary school students one-on-one in literacy. Each session with a student includes a tutor read aloud where the student picks a book for me to read to them, a skill instruction portion with the focus on a particular phonics or comprehension skill, and a student read aloud book that the student reads to me with my support. 

This year, Reading Partners will provide tutoring in 20 public schools across New York City, and we hope to reach 1200 students. While we aim to see our program as a large-scale intervention that will help hundreds of students, the beauty of our program is in its one-on-one, small-scale nature, where tutors and students can grow together and build incredible mentorships. That is what makes our students love signing on to Reading Partners and what makes our tutors sign up year after year!

As E and I grew closer, his confidence grew–he always had his camera on, he wasn't afraid to make mistakes and ask questions, and he would even volunteer to alternate pages with me when it was time for the Tutor Read Aloud book.

In the last year, I’ve gotten to mentor and tutor three students in the Bronx weekly: A, a second-grader who always wanted to save time at the end to show me her art projects; S, a second-grader who I didn’t get to meet with many times but was always curious about my ballet background; and E, a fifth-grader and avid baseball player who was “excited but a little nervous” for middle school. 

My relationship with E was particularly special, as we got very comfortable with each other and both were really sad that he wouldn’t be in Reading Partners when he moved to middle school. At the beginning of our Wednesday session, we would always debrief our weekends, and at the end of our weekly Friday session we would share what we were looking forward to that weekend. I made sure to remember what he shared with me and ask about his baseball tryouts and games. 

As E and I grew closer, his confidence grew–he always had his camera on, he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and ask questions, and he would even volunteer to alternate pages with me when it was time for the Tutor Read Aloud book. The year ended with a special moment when E read a poem with confidence and expression for our recorded end-of-year celebration that was shared with all of our stakeholders.

As we delve into another year of tutoring, I’m looking forward to building relationships with more students in the Bronx, and maybe even reconnecting with some of my past students! There’s nothing more inspiring than witnessing growth in a young student and getting to play a positive and encouraging role in their academic journey!

If you’re curious about tutoring with Reading Partners (we are in 13 regions across the United States!), visit our website. You can make a difference in the life of a child with just one hour a week!


Picture of Clara Monk

Clara Monk

Clara Monk (she/her) is a Fellow on the Community Engagement Team at Reading Partners in New York City.


Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Person filling out paperwork

At the Intersection of Federal Policy and Direct Service: the FAFSA

A large part of my Fellowship has been working with students to complete the Federal Application For Student Aid or the FAFSA. Each year, students come to FAFSA sessions with dozens of questions about how to complete one of the most daunting forms of the college process. Most often these are students with unique family circumstances such as those with appointed guardians, fellow dependents that aren’t siblings, and parents who they may not have contact with. There is space in the form to explain these circumstances but it’s easy to miss, and a misclick can force a student to have to submit a correction, which can cause hiccups in aid.

As I’ve learned more about the FAFSA, I’ve learned about how it has changed over the years. In response to a lot of activism and legislative action, the form itself has become more streamlined and user friendly for both students and colleges. However, there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding the federal aid that is offered to students. Most recently, there has been a push by a coalition of higher education organizations–known as the Pell Alliance–to double one of the most important aspects of the federal student aid: the Pell Grant.

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself.

The Pell Grant can currently give up to $6,495 of aid, which does not have to be paid back, to low income college students. For some, this is a major part of their financial aid package, if not their only source of grant aid. Any change in the grant would need to go through federal legislative bodies to be included in the higher education budget. If included in the funding plans for federal higher education programs, doubling the Pell would bring the maximum grant awarded to $13,000. Additionally, the Pell Alliance is asking for the program to be extended to DREAMers and restore lifetime eligibility to 18 semesters of aid, rather than the 12 currently allowed. These changes would effectively extend the reach of the program, providing students who would normally have to take on many loans the chance to graduate with little to no debt.  

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself. Doubling the Pell Grant would allow so many students I serve access to the funds they need and allow them to focus on school rather than finances. Additionally, $6,500 more could be the difference between graduating with or without debt. Being student-centered is one of the most important values at Breakthrough Greater Boston, and a change like this could vastly improve the lives of our students. This work has added so much passion behind a monotonous task like filling out the FAFSA, and given me opportunities to learn about and understand my work more deeply. 

 A lot of my learning as a Fellow has been practical, developing key skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. However, staying up to date on federal and state trends has taught me that college access work extends beyond what I do at the office. The educators, counselors, and supporters of the Double Pell movement are going beyond direct service, to address root causes of student barriers. Following the activism of the Pell Alliance has shown me the role that the federal government can play in educating the youth of our nation, and I will continue to support the progress of the Double Pell change as it moves through the legislative process. 


Picture of Serena Salgao

Serena Salgao

Serena Salgado (she/her) is the College Success and Alumni Support FAO Schwarz Fellow at Breakthrough Greater Boston in Boston, MA.

Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash.

A child's hand is shown stamping a pattern on a white t-shirt.

Breaking the Digital Ice: Creative Approaches to Community Engagement

When I submitted my FAO Schwarz Fellowship application in February 2020, how could I have predicted that the world would become unrecognizable in just four short weeks? Graduating college, starting a full-time job, and moving to a new city are not easy feats, pandemic or not. Under normal circumstances, I would have walked across astage in May to receive my degree. I would have visited the city wherein I’d received a job offer–before accepting the offer.

Silhouetted sign post with arrows in front of sunset

Crises and Creativity: What we can learn from 2020

At Jumpstart, we emphasize the importance of young children’s capacity to learn during those critical early years, when their minds are flexible and open to new experiences. As adults, it can be easy to settle into our patterns and believe that our time to learn and change has passed. The pandemic has affected every aspect of my work and personal life, but rather than focus on the way things haven’t gone according to plan, I’m considering the ways my perspective has changed.

At the end of my fellowship, I’m thinking about how I can continue to challenge my expectations, habits, and ideas, even after leaving the crisis-mode of this past year.

I remember the dread throughout the nonprofit and education world as we entered the pandemic last spring. Without in-person classes, how could students learn effectively? Without in-person services, would families fall through the cracks? Before there was time to conduct research, we began planning how to address the expected learning loss. When things go sideways, it’s easy to catastrophize, freeze, and just wait for things to go back to normal.

Unimaginable events can lead to previously unimagined (or unimplemented) ideas. Knowing this, I hope to hold onto the mindset that every person or system still has a huge potential for growth.

At Jumpstart, once we realized that “normalcy” would never return, the work of redesigning programs for a virtual setting began. Tech averse folks (like me), had to let go of our resistances and become fluent in virtual platforms. Rather than create a temporary replacement for traditional community engagement, we were able to develop something new. Over the summer, I worked with Jumpstart volunteers who created astounding educational videos for children. Throughout the year, I collaborated with the Reads Alliance in Brooklyn and Queens to host trilingual Zoom events that often gathered nearly one hundred attendees and distributed hundreds of book kits. Although the in-person interaction was missing, we were able to create entirely different experiences. Virtual engagement gave us the ability to have translators for multiple languages, host guest speakers who live across the world, and connect with families who may not have had the time to travel to a traditional event.

This is not to force a silver lining onto a year that was devastating and traumatic, but to point out how the learning potential we see in children still exists in adults and organizations. Unimaginable events can lead to previously unimagined (or unimplemented) ideas. Knowing this, I hope to hold onto the mindset that every person or system still has a huge potential for growth, even though they may have exited that “critical period.” I hope that we can carry forward the innovations that have stemmed from this disaster, along with a new openness to adaptation. I’m excited to return to seeing children and families in-person, to have the side conversations and irreplaceable interactions, and I’ll bring a new sense of resourcefulness and creativity with me.

Picture of Meredith Jones

Meredith Jones

Meredith Jones (she/her) is the Policy and Community Impact Fellow Jumpstart for Young Children in New York City.


Photo Raul PetriUnsplash

An infographic about a Community Building method designed by FAO Fellow Lex Brown. The graphic's title is Building Community, The "ICE FARM" Approach by lex brown. The graphic is organized by the letters of ICEFARM with a step based on each letter. I- Individualization: Over time, get to know each person and their unique context. C- Consistency and Clear communication: Remember key details and reach out in ways that resonate with both the messenger and receiver. E- Explicit Ecosystem of expectations: Know what we need of others, know what is needed of us, and know how these needs are interconnected. F- Follow up/through: Be faithful to our word and acknowledge when needs aren't being met. A-Accountability: Make demonstrated effort to be accountable in action to those in our community. R- Respect for each other's humanity: Hold and honor community members as full humans with capacity for growth. M- Mutuality: Others must demonstrate a willingness and ability to enthusiastically build and maintain.

Building Community: the ICE FARM Approach

Since I was young, building community has been noted as one of my strengths. However, having my fellowship experience at Breakthrough Greater Boston (BTGB) begin completely virtually required me to think more intentionally about what community building looks like as a practice, one that cannot be facilitated as a byproduct of proximity. READ MORE