by Jan Gloor
In 1989, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) was started in a small quaint office to teach kids chess. Many of these students came from our own communities, many coming from underprivileged backgrounds. After two years, the program produced the first African-American International Grandmaster, Maurice Ashley.
As HEAF grew, the organization began to develop the lives of young Harlemites. Expanding their offices, HEAF worked with students to develop their math and english skills, sending them to prestigious High Schools across the city. In a speech, a HEAFer explained the process. Unsure of the perfect high school for them, this student went to a HEAF employee, who, in response, took out a large high school directory, flipped through the pages and pointed out the school for her.
HEAF not only targeted academic excellence at the high school level, but at the college level too. As Fausto Jimenez-Evans, an alumni from the 2000s, explained, HEAF worked directly with his parents, who were unable to speak English, through the college financial aid process. HEAF too helped Fausto with his college applications, guiding him to a full scholarship at Columbia University. Other students expressed similar sentiments, as well as their gratitudes to HEAF’s college tours and international travel program.
Each of these individual stories of success were shared at HEAF’s homecoming event. For thirty years, HEAF was a consistent force in the educational world, developing and improving the lives of underprivileged students. On the surface level, HEAF provided students with chances to improve their academic skills. But, on a deeper level, they provided children with mentors, who inspired a deeper connection with the community, education and life.
Fausto himself attested to this. As a student of color at Columbia University, he noticed a significant gap in the number of colored students attending the university. Thus, after graduation, to give back to the community in a method reminiscent of HEAF, he began working with students in the New York school system to give them better access to higher education.
The stories don’t end there. Cecil Brooks Jr., another alum, found his way of giving back through politics, working in the house of representatives for the vested interests of the 15th Congressional district of New York. Each HEAFer appears to have taken the lessons taught by HEAF and applied them within their respective community.
And so, in an effort to unite these alumni, HEAF reinstated its alumni connection program, starting with the homecoming event. These alumni, from various generations, will be able to unite their fields to make meaningful change. Additionally, an alumni organization allows today’s students to connect with alumni to explore their interests through internships/mentorships. These connections not only give today’s HEAFers insight into their future endeavors, but also the philosophy of giving back. Alumni programs are a way for former HEAFers to give back, and as such today’s students see firsthand the impact and meaning behind helping a community.
Moving forward, HEAF has started to expand towards the other boroughs of New York City. Over time, with the alumni, the organization hopes to cast a wide net across the entire city and nation, connecting future pioneers to not only their schools but their communities at large.