Even before the coronavirus upended life in New York City and across the country, New York Cares had been adjusting education programming to focus on communities in greatest need. The onset of COVID-19 brought urgency, sharper focus, and led to Stand with Students, a yearlong education initiative and fundraising campaign to support families, schools, and students throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
For the campaign’s August 27 kickoff, 150 volunteers gathered in East New York to pack more than 5,000 backpacks filled with school supplies and personal hygiene essentials donated by New York Life. The backpacks are a first step in supporting students in communities profoundly impacted by COVID-19.
To hear more about how Stand with Students came to be and how it’s different from education programs of years past, we sat down with New York Cares Children’s Education Program Manager Dana Laurel.
Tell us a little about your background and how that dovetails with your work at New York Cares.
Dana Laurel (DL): I spent many years working with companies like Nickelodeon and Morgan Stanley as a digital product manager; building websites and mobile apps, a career focusing on people’s needs and creating the right service to meet those needs.
Before that, I worked in the Bronx as a math teacher in the New York City public school system. I’ve always had a heart for social impact, so while I was project managing, I spent some time as a community engagement manager for a nonprofit organization in New Jersey.
I wanted to confirm that social impact was something I wanted to do full time. Then I saw the opportunity at New York Cares and applied to see if they would have me. And they did! It’s been wonderful to see the translation of those skill sets into this work.
How did Stand with Students come about?
DL: We have been evolving our strategies to ensure that we are focusing on those communities in greatest need, where we plan to make deeper relationships, and provide the best support so those communities can support themselves.
As a result of COVID and the needs that arose from that, we were able to use the backpack event to really launch our community zoning efforts, showing up in the areas of greatest need, and show how we can offer the greatest support.
How does Stand with Students differ from previous back-to-school projects?
DL: The pandemic was a major catalyst. We were forced to quickly evaluate where we could be of most service to the community. Last year at this time, we were coming out of our summer of corporate service and preparing to restart many education programs with different partners. Things were certain.
This year, we have no certainty. The need has skyrocketed, and the uncertainty has increased. We have had to look at everything in a different way, including how we support communities that are in a very volatile, changing landscape, particularly in the education space and social justice. They [school community partners] don’t have a handle on what the school year is going to look like, but they do know that the need for schools and families is immense.
How has that uncertainty changed things?
DL: It has made us more agile, iterative, and responsive. It has been amazing and wonderful to see the staff come together and really be present with partners and volunteers. It’s been a year of positive change in a time of crisis.
Why do you think education programs like Stand with Students are important for New York Cares?
DL: New York Cares’ primary goal and mission is to stand at the cross section of those who need and those who can help support. With everything that has been going on this year with COVID and the inequities that have been highlighted as a result, Stand with Students has appropriately become a focus.
Students and families are at the heart of all communities. It takes a village to raise a child, and we are perfectly positioned to -- and we should -- bring the community together to help New York City’s children and families.
What do you hope Stand with Students accomplishes?
DL: We hope to mobilize the volunteers and provide the workforce communities need to support students and families. We want to assure students and families that they’re not alone.
Other goals of the Stand with Students initiative are to provide virtual supplemental learning for a range of topics, invest supplies and resources, address the mental health effects of COVID-19, and support and engage parents and caregivers.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.