Imagine your child being surrounded by a sea of young people that all wish to make a difference, that all actually do want to go to college, and that all have the same glee in their eye… to eagerly spread their new wings, fly out into the world, and make their mark.  Imagine no longer, such a place does exist.   The Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) is a comprehensive college preparatory program that creates an environment for such children everyday.

HEAF is an extraordinary educational model that serves the needs of those with limited access and provides for underserved communities. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.  Held at the Hotel Mandarin, HEAF celebrated this year’s landmark with a Gala Dinner and an illustrious ceremony honoring former Chancellor, NYC Public Schools, Joel Klein and now CEO of the Education Division and its graduating students.

HEAF began as an experiment to help increase reading scores in one of the lowest performing schools in the city.  Its goal was to focus on public school students in central Harlem and provide them with quality education and other resources.  Changing lives and building communities since it’s inception, HEAF has supported thousands of kids and helped increase their academic skills, providing them with the structure, the career resources, and the professional support needed to complete their studies and secure a better future for themselves.

“From the minute you walk in the door, college truly is the rule.  One hundred percent of our students graduate from high school; one hundred percent go to college; 83% graduate from college and one-third go onto graduate school, ” so says HEAF CEO Ruth Rathblott. Graduates of HEAF become doctors, lawyers, engineers, administrators and mathematicians (the original group of students was flown in from around the country and honored for the stellar strides they had made, paving new ground and carving out their careers).  Honoree, Joel Klein was congratulated for his “commitment to ensuring every child receive the world-class education they deserve.”  In fact, Mr. Klein received a standing ovation when he delivered a riveting speech about how HEAF kids have scaled new heights and urged our support for the HEAF program, reminding us “how a small dedicated group like HEAF truly can change the world!”

During his opening remarks at the Gala dinner, Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, a very active board member said “HEAF gives children the opportunity to expand their intellectual curiosity, setting them on the path to discovery…” Tyson mesmerized the audience with imaginings of these children going forth, out into the world, touching on the future science and careers we have only yet begun to fathom.  Not unlike the way he held the imagination of millions of Americans across the nation with his recent series Cosmos, Tyson took the audience on a spellbinding journey as we watched a film showing HEAF kids in their element — learning, creating and blazing new paths to a brighter future. Dr. Tyson, an astrophysicist, presented HEAF with a plaque of a personally selected asteroids officially named in honor of HEAF, saying how “the universe really is shining down upon HEAF kids.”

What makes the difference for kids with HEAF is that before, during, and after college the very grounding provided for students to continue to hone their academic acumen and sharpen their professional skills is never abandoned.  When asked what were some of the provisions HEAF offered that helped prepare her for her career, alumni Ileanea Lagares (now sitting pretty in an executive level position at HBO) said, “Mentorship platforms for students are set up, such as speed networking, which provides them with a few minutes with professional people already practicing in the fields that a student may wish to gain further exposure. Considered a home to many inner city kids, HEAF brought me in its fold when I was in the fifth grade.  As an inner-city child, I instantly recognized the value added in exposing me to a new spectrum of interests…like tennis, and chess, and field trips like ice skating that I would not have ever experienced at that age. “

“Every hour invested in volunteering at HEAF is an investment in our future workforce and an investment in the student themselves. Our mission at HEAF is that every student deserves the very best that we have to offer,” said a HEAF board member.

Graduating from Temple with a double major in African Studies and Theater, Jahlil Shabazz, this year’s HEAF Valedictorian, exuded how HEAF “impacted my life so profoundly.” Thundering across the room during the ceremony, Mr. Shabazz struck the deepest cord when he expressed “how the drive and the power of ambition that was instilled in him created the biggest burst of hope and conviction” that has given him every confidence one could hope for.   Mr. Shabazz owned his newfound perch as spokesperson for his graduating class, saying, “I was a good student before I came here, but I became a great student after…HEAF provided me with a strong foundation and opened me to a variety people that shaped me.  It gave me the materials that contextualized my experience and my social identity and provided me the wherewithal and the tools to go forward in life.  It gave me the corporate culture that made me conscious of how best to present myself in the workplace; such as mock interviews, team building retreats, and mentoring on how to navigate in certain waters.  For more than half of my life [a little over a decade], I have been part of the HEAF family.  HEAF really earned our trust…The real beauty of HEAF is the safe space and the home that it became for myself and my peers….A home we always know we can come back to.”