Medgar Evers College – CUNY, New York

Brooklyn is a borough where crime, drugs, and obesity are commonplace, while educational opportunities for adolescents are limited. The Empowering Youths to Excel and Succeed (EYES) project instills hope to a cohort of youth, helping turn their lives around.

Of the nine million people currently living in New York City, approximately 2.5 million reside in Brooklyn. One of them is a young student named Ewunike, known amongst friends as “Nikki.” Nikki lives in a borough where 60 percent of its population is overweight or obese, and only 30 percent have graduated from high school. Additionally, Brooklyn’s large minority population and high poverty rate has led to significant health disparities — in health outcomes and risk factors related to morbidity and mortality. Further still, Brooklyn’s high crime rates have been linked to heightened levels of poverty and unemployment — problems which also plague Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Nikki is growing up. Crown Heights reports the highest level of crime among all five boroughs and ranks first in deaths related to drug abuse. Felonious assaults and burglaries increased considerably in 2007, and the homicide rate increased by 65 percent in 2010. Such negative behaviors perpetuate themselves generationally, which makes academic success leading to college an uphill battle for Nikki and her friends.

Attempting to level the playing field is the EYES Project, a Youth Empowerment Program designed and offered by CUNY’s Medgar Evers College.

“I cannot imagine anything more important than what we’re doing here,” says Interim Dean of the School of Business at Medgar Evers, Dr. John Graham. “If we can show we’re making a difference in Brooklyn, particularly through the EYES Project, I think this will mark the beginning of the beginning.” The beginning is off to an extraordinary start.

Among its cohort, no students enrolled in EYES have received disciplinary actions, suspensions, or expulsions (compared to 10 in the control group of equal size). Similarly, no pregnancies have occurred in the EYES cohort (compared with eight in the control group), and no arrests have been made (compared with six in the control group). More impressive yet is the success EYES has achieved in terms of fitness, imparting a healthy and nutritious lifestyle.

“These kids were overweight when we started,” says Dr. Veronica Udeogalanya, EYES Principal Investigator. “With our first six-week cycle, we saw a five-pound weight loss. Our second six-week cycle showed further evidence of weight loss. By the end of the year, they actually lost an average of 15 pounds.”

Instrumental to this success are the resources the program employs: EYES uses a host of developmental programs and support services to target and reduce at-risk behaviors in its youth. It engages students in fitness activities such as Body Sculpt workshops, Boot Camp aerobics, SocaMotion dance choreography, and access to a nutritionist and a gymnasium. While its resources aren’t monumental, the heart and soul of the EYES Project are its mentors. From its program director, Lindy Jackie, to its Boot Camp and SocaMotion instructors and beyond, the EYES mentors make such a profound difference in the lives of these youth because they truly care about them. Most mentors are Medgar Evers undergraduates from the same neighborhood who faced similar obstacles growing up and overcame them.

“It’s all about showing our young people they can make a better life for themselves,” says Lindy Jackie. “And it’s about offering them healthy lifestyles. By doing that, we’re changing their lives.”

Ask Nikki, she’ll tell you it only takes one person to change a life. For her, that person was Lindy. “She’s a person I look up to,” says Nikki, “because she points me in the right directions. I want to be just like her when I grow up.”

And the glory of this program is that Nikki will be in position to do exactly that when she grows up, to be just like her mentor. Because now, thanks to Lindy Jackie — and thanks to the EYES Project — Nikki is on the right path. She possesses the tools to rise above the realities of her borough and to go to college and live a successful, productive life. And by doing so, who knows who she’ll inspire to do the same.

“Everybody helps somebody,” says Nikki. “You can’t help a person unless they help themselves, but … just one little step can push that person in the right direction. This program is the right step. This program changed my life.”