The Penguin Party™

By Amanda Downy, Nealy Hale, Suraj Jain, and Cassie Rolnick

February’s a short month, but it’s also really significant in our world. Every February, the Change for Kids Junior Board hosts our annual fundraising gala – The Penguin Party – and wPP Blog poste collectively get an opportunity to throw one of New York City’s most celebrated parties while doing a great service – helping change the lives of children in underserved public elementary schools in New York City.

The Junior Board membership consists of many different people, yet we’re all committed to community service and philanthropy. For many of us, the impact of our own education experience made working with an education-focused not-for-profit a perfect fit. During our childhoods, there were many teachers, principals, coaches, counselors, and librarians who made sure we were learning not just academic skills, but also interpersonal skills that would make a difference in our futures, along with making us better members of our communities.

Collaborating with CFK’s staff to present The Penguin Party is A LOT of work. It’s not just getting all the details right to make sure the attendees have an unforgettable party experience. It’s telling the Change for Kids story in a personal, emotional, impactful way to a wide variety of potential sponsors and donors. It’s thanking everyone for their support and commitment, and thanking them over and over. It’s asking our friends and families to donate or volunteer. It’s making sure that the work we do reflects well on us and the Change for Kids organization.

By the time the party starts – Friday, February 22nd, at 8:30pm, we are tired, but we’re happy, ready to get out on the dance floor and celebrate with everyone! When we eventually go home on Saturday morning, we know we’ve accomplished a mission that creates real change for kids who can most benefit from our continued support. And after a short recovery period, we’re back at the CFK office, asking, “What else can we do?” Because doing good feels great.

(The authors are the CFK Junior Board co-chairs and the Penguin Party event co-chairs.)



Kevin Ervin on Leaders, Learning, and Listening

Sitting down in my third week as Executive Director of Change for Kids, I reflect. This period of time has been a whirlwind of handshakes, agreements, decision watching and decision making, consultations, smiles, questions and answers, head nods and a whole heap of listening. I have, in this time, relearned the cliche alliteration that Learning Leaders Listen. I would even dare to take it one step deeper: servant leaders listen.

My career has spanned work with tens of thousands of children and hundreds of staff, and I have never been a better leader than when I was genuinely listening – not listening to answer, nor to respond. Just listening. Coming into a meeting, a coffee break, an annual appeal prep, or even the myriad of interactions before your annual gala all look the same: enter with a heart of service and an ear for listening. Amazingly still, these principles transcend position or age!

The young elementary school junior mediator is taught to listen first to both parties and then respond. The high school athletics star is encouraged to listen to his teammates and learn the pulse of the team. The school teacher is never greater than when she gets down to the level of her students and listens with interest. Deeper still, in the oldest of ages, the grandparent who spent years as the CEO of a mega corporation, spends her time listening to her grandchildren and learning from their inquisitive minds. Each of these people is a leader. Listening to change the world. Regardless of age or position, serving others through listening is leadership. Full stop.

The amazing thing about the world in which we currently live is that there are so many opportunities to listen, to serve, to be great. At Change for Kids, we’ve found the secret sauce to school improvement, literacy efficacy, education reform, and even mundane things like wearing white after Labor Day, or how to not miss your stop on any NYC subway train when the line decides to go express – listen. To improve schools, we listen to the principals, teachers, parents and pupils. To help fill in word gaps in elementary school learners’ vocabularies, students listen to volunteers from the corporate world and the community reading books aloud to them. To reform education, districts will listen to those pounding the pavement of equity and those on the front line of education. To decide whether to wear white after Labor Day, we listen to our heart (though I would advise against it); and to not miss your stop, listen to the conductor.

But, don’t just take my word for it, listen to Martin:

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A sou.l generated by love.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.



“What are the consequences of not measuring up?”

This question was posed in this week’s Chalkbeat article, “New York is about to release a new list of struggling schools. Here’s what you should know.”

But before we go any further, let’s really consider every angle of the question. Because the consequences of “not measuring up,” are as impactful for an individual child’s performance evaluation and future opportunities as a school’s. Each has consequences; yet what are the measurements in place – and how do they account for the vast discrepancy of available resources between schools in low-income neighborhoods, and those in more affluent areas? Importantly: is the measuring pole itself biased?

Many of the schools identified as struggling and in need of state intervention have principals in place who are visionary leaders that have been laying necessary groundwork for improvement against all odds — most dramatically, lack of adequate funding. Yet a host of other factors limit  their access to the resources necessary to affect their students’ performance in terms of measurable growth, which is defined largely by standardized testing and attendance rates.

“Schools in these bottom two tiers will be required to submit self-assessments that explain the ways their schools are falling short and craft a plan, including “evidence-based” approaches,” the article tells us. thus placing the additional burden on the educators  already pushing the outcomes improvement boulder up a grossly inequitable hill. On top of that, “Schools in the bottom-most tier must also set aside at least $2,000, a fund that students and families can vote on how to use in a process known as “participatory budgeting.” Where is the research that supports either tactic as a best practice in creating lasting improvement for the schools overall, and better outcomes for the individual students?  

Full disclosure: two of CFK’s schools are on the list. Yet the fact that these schools need help is exactly why we partner with them. Principals who are already stretched impossibly thin need a thought partner while crafting solutions, a benefit unique to the CFK model. We agree that community input is a necessary element of any solution; yet low-income and under-resourced communities are stretched to their breaking points in just finding adequate affordable housing and jobs to support their families.

Inadequate and inequitable school funding continues to unfairly tilt the playing field. Low-income scholars and those from less educated families are at a significant disadvantage for so many reasons. They need safe, welcoming, and nurturing school environments. School is often the most stable part of their day. Addressing equity issues within New York City public schools is a decades-long problem.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967 in his last book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

Until poverty is abolished, until bias is eliminated, under-resourced schools will struggle. They need our help to change the odds, and we’re committed to making lasting change for New York City’s schoolchildren.



Welcome to Kevin Ervin, our new Executive Director!

kevinervinKevin Ervin is now the Executive Director of Change for Kids. He’s a passionate advocate for public schools, and joins us from the NYC Department of Education District 2, where he held both operational and administrative roles. An individualized approach to strengthening schools is critical to positively affect change where it is needed most, Kevin believes, and he’s been in the trenches long enough to see what’s working, and what isn’t.

Earlier in his career, he was responsible for transforming Vacamas Programs for Youth from a single-service non-profit into a multi-service, multi-city non-profit in under a decade. Kevin holds an Executive Master of Public Administration degree from NYU, and a Bachelor of Science Leadership degree from Northeastern University. He is also a musician who plays seven instruments, and he fills any room he’s in with his boundless, infectious energy.

Kevin was most drawn to Change for Kids by the passion that permeates the organization — from the Board Chair to the volunteers — and the sense that everyone working with CFK is here for the right reasons. He is especially inspired by the true partnership between CFK and our schools. Kevin’s convinced that CFK’s model of combining the best practices of numerous education and youth development programs positions us to trail-blaze a path for a new program model that can become a true partner with the City of New York, and the front-runner of school partnership models.

Here’s Kevin, in his own words: “Change for Kids is creating real, positive change in elementary schools throughout New York City’s most underserved communities. Knowing firsthand the power of education to create options and opportunity, I am so proud to lead the charge to bolster the vision of this committed organization.” We are so excited for everyone to meet him!


A Few of Our Favorite Things in 2018

The New Year is almost upon us. All the hard-working students, staff, and School Managers in CFK’s partner schools are enjoying a well-deserved holiday break. We’re looking back at 2018 with gratitude, and forward to 2019 with optimism and determination.

There were so many highlights from 2018. Yet when we take stock of any year, we have only one measuring pole, and it’s the one that’s in our name.

How much change did we provide to kids? As it turns out, quite a bit!

  • We began exciting new program partnerships with Leap NYC and Writopia.
  • New York University’s Global Programs partnership placed six NYU students as tutors in our Manhattan schools.
  • Last spring, our first semester of programming for our first Staten Island school, PS 21 in Port Richmond, began.
  • We added Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School to our school roster in September, partnering with the invincible Principal Dawn DeCosta.
  • Our students attended several events with Salesforce aimed at developing their technology skills.
  • Our corporate sponsors and volunteer teams supported thousands of hours of learning programs, community engagement, and efforts to beautify our schools.
  • Our partnerships with Operation Warm, Nordstrom, and Payless delivered coats and shoes to kids as the cold weather began to settle in.
  • Our holiday gift and turkey drives delivered bountifully, thanks to our donors.  

In addition, we held some of our best-ever events throughout the year, including the annual Penguin Party, Golf for Kids, Charity SoulCycle Ride, Super Chefs, and the NYC Marathon.

Looking forward to 2019, we take inspiration from the words of Barack Obama:


There is still so much we can change in our communities for kids. Let’s take steps together to continue to bring positive change to kids who need it.

Between eighty and ninety percent of our students are living in severe economic hardship. In several of our schools, almost half of the students live in transient housing.

Our schools have noble and necessary visions for the future, and all of them involve creating learning environments that build self-esteem, champion the value of education, and contribute to inspiring greatness. We thank everyone for your commitment to making real change possible for kids in 2018.  Let’s make a commitment together for 2019 – for our schools, our city, and our future – to grow Change for Kids, and help even more students succeed. 


Our Holiday Drive was a Huge Success, Thanks to You!


Again and again, our corporate sponsors, individual donors, and volunteers go the extra mile for the students in Change for Kids schools. This holiday season, everyone was especially generous! As we distribute Wish List holiday gifts, coats, and shoes in our schools, seeing the excitement and joy on the children’s faces as they open their packages is so fulfilling. It makes us wish every one of our generous donors could be there to witness the students’ happiness and get a firsthand thank you.

This week, we are so grateful to Payless for helping CFK send every student at Brooklyn’s PS 81 home with a brand new pair of sneakers that fit. Kids’ feet grow so quickly, and well-fitting shoes are essential for them to get the exercise they need in comfort. With their donation, Payless is making such a difference in the lives of these children.

The Wish List gift distributions are a powerful, tangible demonstration of our elementary schools’ learning communities. Many of these students live in transitional housing, and these gifts are often the only ones they will receive during the holiday season. Even in the midst of their excitement and anticipation, kids wait patiently until everyone in the class has a gift before they tear into the wrapping. They calmly negotiate among themselves if there are any swaps to make. One student revealed that her wish list gift was actually intended for her younger sister, whose school doesn’t have a gift wish list program. Sometimes the kids were prompted to say thank you by the teachers, yet most of the time they shouted and squealed their thanks as soon as their gifts were opened. An aspiring musician in the second grade was absolutely incredulous that his electronic keyboard was really his to take home!

The magic of giving filled classrooms across the city, and made us wish that we could bring this special feeling to every community. Our enormous thanks to everyone involved in the Payless shoe distribution, and to everyone who bought a gift for a CFK school, including the groups at Apollo Global Management, Yale Club, NYU’s Black Alumni Association Cherry Ivy, MTS, Erica Barrett, Slack, Labaton, Union Square Ventures, Northern Trust, and so many more.

CFK wishes you and yours a very happy holiday season.








In Praise of Our Volunteers

Volunteers are vital to everything we do at Change for Kids. You help us with everything: from working to improve literacy with our elementary school scholars through Reading Buddies and Build-A-Book activities, introducing them to coding, and helping bring their creativity to life. When we need you to lend a hand helping us move furniture and paint walls to create comfort corners and de-escalation rooms, and gather holiday gifts for our schools, you are there. This much is certain: we couldn’t do it without you. Thank you.

Many of you return year after year, always with smiles on your faces, as eager as kindergartners. It turns out that volunteering has a multitude of mental and physical health benefits. Several recent studies aimed to better understand the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness across a large group of American adults. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that the more people volunteer, the happier they are. The University of Exeter Medical School’s 2013 global study found plenty of evidence that volunteering often leads to reported lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.

Porsha Pate, who most recently was a Guest Reader Volunteer at Brooklyn Landmark, puts it this way: “Change For Kids sets the bar high in terms of creating community, developing children’s skills, and modeling leadership. From the comfortable atmosphere in the classrooms to the engaged kids, it’s a combination of sharing, learning, and making a difference. It makes me feel incredibly thankful and optimistic going into the holidays, too. I’m looking forward to more volunteering in the new year!”

Thank you, Porsha, and thank you to everyone who volunteers with us. If you’d like to sign up for one of our upcoming opportunities, please reach out to Mesha Allen, our Volunteer Coordinator, at mallen@changeforkids.org.