Great Neck-based community service organization COPAY Inc. held its annual celebration last week to mark the end of what the agency’s Executive Director Maria Elisa Cuadra said was its innovative Kids Helping Kids summer program.
“When we started this program, Kids Helping Kids, one of the goals of the program was to help children to attach to the community,” Cuadra said last Thursday during the camp’s year-end celebration at Great Neck Plaza Village Hall.
But, Cuadra said, unless the Nassau County Legislature restores funds to the county’s youth social service agencies that attachment may soon be lost forever.
If the 10 Republican and nine Democratic members of the Legislature cannot come to an agreement to provide $8 million in funding for the county’s youth social service agencies, Cuadra said last week’s “Kids Helping Kids” year-end celebration would mark the end of COPAY’s summer program.
“To take away those types of programs that are critical is very disturbing and it is extreme,” Cuadra said. “I’ve been a director for more than 20 years and never in my entire career have I seen something this extreme and this severe. It’s very, very disturbing, but I also think it’s very dangerous.”
Last month, 40 youth social service programs and 13 mental health and chemical dependency agencies from across the county lost their funding because Democrats and Republicans in the county Legislature failed to come to terms on an agreement to approve the borrowing of $41 million to pay for Nassau’s 2011 property tax refunds.
For any borrowing to be approved, the 19-member Legislature must support the proposal by a two-thirds majority.
With Republicans holding a 10-9 majority, that would mean at least three members of the Democratic caucus would have to cross party lines for any borrowing to be approved.
Democrats in the Legislature have previously indicated they would not support any further borrowing to pay for property tax refunds until an agreement is made with Republicans on the redistricting plans for county legislators.
“We are not going to give up,” Cuadra said. “We are going to continue to fight to restore, not just services for children and youth, but to restore sanity in this county.”
Funding for Nassau’s social service organizations was previously made available through revenue from the county’s red-light cameras.
“All that money had been target for youth services, but it was recently taken from youth programs by (Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano) who decided to redirect it to other things,” Cuadra said.
Nassau County Legislator Judi Bosworth (D-Great Neck) attended last week’s event and praised COPAY for the effect its summer program had on the children who participated in it.
“I thought it was phenomenal it was so live affirming,” Bosworth said of last week’s event. “You saw the joy and happiness in these children.”
The children and counselors who participated in this year’s COPAY summer program showed off arts and crafts, sang two songs and performed a dance for their parents who came to Great Neck Plaza Village Hall for the year end celebration.
After attending the event, Bosworth said she would continue to fight to restore funding for the county’s youth social service programs.
“Being a legislator, it is such a sad time in our county that funding for those most in need and those most vulnerable has been discontinued,” the legislator said. “I believe you never give up hope. You always have to continue talking. I hope that sane minds will prevail and there will be a way to restore this funding.”
Cuarda said last week that she was appreciative of Bosworth’s support.
“Judi has been an ongoing supporter for many, many years,” Cuadra said. “I’ve known her as a legislator. I’ve known her working on other projects in the community, working with the school district. She has always been pro-family, pro-kid and pro-services to youth.”
In past years, COPAY’s Kids Helping Kids summer program incorporated 35 children who took part in a variety of activities around Great Neck and Nassau County on a budget of $25,000, Cuadra said.
After losing their funding this summer, Cuadra said the program was only able to take on five children this year.
“I find that because we’re in Great Neck, we are fortunate,” Cuadra said. “I work with many other colleagues who have been through funding loss and they don’t have the resources in their communities that are available here.”
The children in COPAY’s summer camp participated in activities ranging from a yoga class with Village of Great Neck Plaza’s Bonda Yoga and a karate class at the Tiger Schulmann Mixed Martial Arts Studio in Great Neck to visiting the Queens Zoo, the New York Hall of Science and the Chuck-E-Cheese in Hempstead.
Cuadra said COPAY was able to continue its summer program this year through a grant from Capital One Bank and donations from community members and organizations, such as the Town of North Hempstead, which donated funds for busing of the children.
“We’ve become really, really good at using everything that the community has to offer,” Cuadra said. “In doing that, we bring the children into the community where they can experience different parts of the community and learn about it and make it their own.”
And that is what makes COPAY’s “Kids Helping Kids” program truly special, Cuadra said.
“We believe that if kids really belong in the neighborhood, if they feel that the community is their’s, as well as everyone else’s they are going to do better in the community,” Cuadra said.
The “Kids Helping Kids” program focuses on the participating children’s academic struggles, along with providing information about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancies, Cuadra said.
“We know that the majority of kids that fall into those things start at about age 11 and that the majority of early substance experimentation and use and early pregnancy usually takes place between 3 and 6:30 in the afternoon when mom and dad are still at work and they have nothing to do,” Cuadra said. “These programs provide safety nets for kids because it gives them something to do in those critical hours.”
The program also provides children with counseling from the educators, licensed clinical social workers, psychologists and family therapists who all work with COPAY, Cuadra said.
“All kinds of professionals work at the agency, so kids have a place and a responsible person with whom they can confide a problem that perhaps they’re having,” Cuadra said. “Parents are also encouraged to come and to participate and to be part of that process. It helps families.”
In addition, the program also trains children to take part in running the summer program.
Cuadra said participants in the Kids Helping Kids program have the opportunity to work their way up and work in roles as junior counselors, senior counselors and program coordinators.
“This is a program that runs on a shoe string because it’s run by kids that have been trained for 10 years to run it,” Cuadra said. “It’s almost like a loop. It just keeps going and going and going.”
Great Neck South graduate Laura Greene, who served as a co-coordinator of the 2012 summer program, said working with COPAY has provided an invaluable experience.
“I started working here in high school,” said Greene, who is a clinical social work second-year masters student at UCLA. “I’ve always had an interest in working with children in some sort of social service.”
“It’s given me that opportunity,” she added, “to build skills professionally, but also just work within my community. It’s been extremely rewarding.”
For East Northport native Amanda Aguilo, who was a co-coordinator of the 2012 summer program as well, watching the funding cuts nearly decimated the Kids Helping Kids program has been tough.
“It’s really sad just because seeing kids go through the program you see how much it can change their lives and how much they’ve opened up over the years,” she said. “There are some kids that we’ve had for three years, some of them, and they are completely different children because we’ve been working with them for so long. Just knowing that we can’t help more is really disappointing.”
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