Week 29: Team Walker’s Holiday Christmas Party
Just across the Hudson River from NYC’s wealthy Tribeca area, the waterfront neighborhoods of Jersey City boast recently constructed high-rise office buildings and luxury apartments where one bedroom, one bath, 750 sq. ft. condos sell for over $800,000. Trendy restaurants, expensive gyms and swanky shops welcome new, mostly young, Jersey City residents, attracted to the beautiful skyline and proximity of NYC. But just a short drive a few blocks west and south, crossing under the NJ Turnpike /Rt. 78 Ext, which slices Jersey City in half, and another, much older Jersey City emerges. Here, the landscape is spattered with pre-foreclosures and foreclosures. Here, a 3 bedroom, one bath home over 1,500 sq.ft. can be secured for under $300,000. Here, median income drops from upwards of $80,000 to $35,000. Here you can find neighborhoods with poverty levels beyond 30% and unemployment levels upwards of 40%. This is a place where gunfire and violence are everyday realities. Team Walker exists here, in this shadowland, among these disadvantaged communities.
Team Walker’s stated mission is to improve the quality of life for the children and families of Jersey City. The program was founded by brothers Jerry and Jasper Walker, both of whom grew up in these same, tough neighborhoods. At the surface level, Team Walker accomplishes its mission by offering academic and athletic programs for boys and girls through both after-school programs and an extensive summer program. But, if you look closer, you’ll quickly see the program’s impact is so much deeper than the surface level. The program instills confidence, discipline, commitment and trust by providing a physically and emotionally safe environment where the children grow into the best versions of themselves (in character and academics).
The program focuses on three tenets: Determination, Dedication and Discipline. These three tenets resonate consistently through all of their recreational sport programs, educational programs and social events. I was fortunate enough to be one of 13 volunteers from Wiss & Company who’d registered to help set up and chaperone Team Walker’s Annual Holiday Christmas Party and saw the power of the program first-hand.
The Christmas Party was held at the Liberty Science Center. We were expecting about 175 very excited students from Pre-K through 8th Grade. Our group had arrived early and spent time getting the room ready: setting out colored tablecloths with decorations, laying out the Team Walker sweatshirts (each child would receive one), setting out mountains of wrapped gifts generous donors and Toys-for-Tots had sent for the event. For some of these children whose families live below poverty line – where difficult monthly decisions between paying the utility bills, food, clothing, etc. had to be made – this party, and the wrapped gift they would receive as part of the festivities, would be the only celebration and gift they would receive for Christmas.
The Christmas Party is just one of the community outreach programs Team Walker sponsors. Coat drives, a Thanksgiving Turkey Give-a-Way and weekly farmer’s markets in the summer are a few of the others. The foundation of the program is the sports and academic piece. During the academic year Team Walker runs an after-school program every day Jersey City Public Schools are in session. Here, students can become involved in both academic and recreational programs designed to help them succeed in the classroom and in life. Tutoring, homework help and a supplemental STEM program are some of the supports offered. A very well-known basketball program (for both boys and girls), swimming, drama club and step team are all part of the athletic offerings. Over the summer the full day program also includes trips to museums, parks, zoos and farms. There is a tremendous need for programs such as these to support these disadvantaged youths. Currently, over 200 children participate in the after school programs and over 500 in the summer programs, and participation continues to grow.
The reality of life for many of these children is one of crisis and yet, through the Team Walker program, these students find support, encouragement and trust. In helping at the Christmas Party I found that sense of community and care was immediately apparent. The children arrived at the party in excited murmurs of giggles and squeals, ready for pizza and activities. They showed great concern and respect for each other and their teachers and Team Walker staff right from the start. Helping each other get settled and sharing the pizza and drinks, ensuring everyone received some… it was wonderful to see them interact in such an intentionally caring way. At the head of the event, singing carols and taking time to speak with as many students as possible (each of whom he knew by name), was Jerry Walker.
Jerry is the face of Team Walker. Having grown up on these streets he knows providing not only a safe place outside of school, but also programs to help lift students up academically is essential for the success of these children. Jerry knows the best way to change the dynamic is to build your own reality and so he works tirelessly to connect with the children and involve their families and the schools. He works with community leaders, local and State politicians, local government and grassroots organizations to promote healthy living and create a better, safer environment for the children and families of Jersey City. He and his staff at Team Walker believe in the students and expect the best from them. They help them achieve it. And it works… 98% of Team Walker students graduate High School in neighborhoods where the graduation rates are as low as 60% (Jersey City as a whole has a graduation rate of 85%). Almost 200 Team Walker graduates have gone on to earn their college degrees.
After the students finished their pizza, members of our team helped chaperone them as they tried various activities throughout the Science Center. We then all regrouped in the main party room for cupcakes and a special visit by Santa. At one point, a group of students stepped forward to give an impressive double-dutch jump rope performance, complete with cartwheels, push-ups, rolls and flips. It was heartwarming to see how encouraging the other students were – eagerly circling the girls to watch the performance and cheering them on enthusiastically.
Time flew and all too soon the students were ready to line up to receive their sweatshirts and Christmas gifts before leaving for the buses. Our group felt lucky to have been able to help at the event and to have had the opportunity to spend time with so many children and members of the Team Walker team. I left that day thinking about how much impact Team Walker has on these students and their families.
Ongoing and regular shared experiences like this help build a strong sense of belonging and attachment, of community and contentedness, which ripples out from the students and Team Walker staff to the families, schools and neighborhoods. It empowers these very vulnerable students to grow personally and enables them to go on to achieve amazing educational and personal success.
For more information on Team Walker and its programs, or to make a donation, please visit: