By: Gabriella Alleyne
Our first girl of the month is Ashfah Alam. She is a Junior at The Chapin School and is the co-founder of The Reach Project. The Reach Project is an organization that “provides access to extracurricular activities for low-income students in the Bronx.” Below is the interview I had with Ashfah.
What is your organization?
It’s called the Reach Project and it’s a pending non-profit organization and community-based organization dedicated to providing extra-curricular activities to students in the Bronx. The majority of families are low-income families whose kids would otherwise not have access to such activities. It’s entirely youth-led. Each month is dedicated to a different extracurricular activity. We are targeting students 4th grade and up, since that’s the age when you’re starting to think about things you really want to pursue.
What inspired you to start the Reach Project?
A lot of it has to do with my own background growing up in an immigrant, middle-class family, and in a community without a lot of access to any opportunities outside of academics. Growing up, it was very hard forming a sense of identity and that’s something I still struggle with today. I didn’t have any sort of exposure to different activities such as art, dance or acting until I got to Chapin. That sort of disconnect between me not really knowing what I’m interested in and what my interests are contrast my friends who have been curating this sense of identity and opportunity to do that earlier. It was really difficult, so looking back on my own community, I wanted to do something that could help kids feel confident. Like now, I have skills and I have something outside just good grades that I can call my own.
How long has the Reach Project been in place?
Last summer, the summer before my Junior year, was our first programming. This had been an idea in my head for a long time, I mentioned it to one of my friends, Tasnimul Rafid who is a Junior at Bronx Science. We worked on it together and curated ideas. We supported each other in figuring out what the model will be, who’s going to be involved, where it is going to be held. The biggest challenge was finding a space. We spent the whole year writing a business model and finding volunteers. Over the summer, we held our first program, which was a creative writing program. We chose creative writing because we wanted something that isn’t just academic-based and something where you can use your imagination. We also wanted to cater to parents a little bit.
What else have you been doing? What are the other programs you have been doing?
This spring we had space at an arts space center that mostly focuses on Bengali dance. We wanted to bring acting lessons into it as well. But obviously, with the current situation, we couldn’t do that. This summer we are thinking about a drama based or scriptwriting program.
We’ve been focusing on getting connections within the community. Because obviously if you’re working in the community it’s important to connect with community leaders. We went to an event that was meant to celebrate the police precinct of the Parkchester community. There were a lot of community-based leaders, some who have foundations that give donations back to the community. We went to one of those dinners and gave a speech. We were able to meet a lot of lawyers and people just to have that exposure in the community. It’s really hard to get donations, but we thought it was a really good start to just introduce ourselves. You never know when these connections can help you.
Currently we are using zoom to connect with potential volunteers and train them so that when the pandemic is over, we have the supplementary materials ready.
What do you do during your sessions?
That varied, sometimes it was a two-hour session where we wanted to connect middle school aged students to different mini units based on a particular extracurricular activity. I can talk about what we did last summer. So basically last summer was focused on creative writing. We would start with an ice breaking activity, we would do something fun like charades or something to get the kids comfortable. Then we really put a focus on highlighting the personal narrative or social justice through creative writing because it is also a way to be more conscious about the world.
In the two weeks before we started that summer we met with our volunteers. We picked 7 high school students from a variety of different schools. We worked with our volunteers to make the lesson plan.
We focused on which poems, stories and lessons we are going to highlight and use? After that our focus was getting the kids to the end of the where they would be able to make their own storybook. We ordered hardcover books that they can write their own stories in and then present it to their parents. We also had to come up with what expectations seem doable for them. We got a lot of interesting stories. We had a lot of realistic fiction stories about racism that was obviously based on the student’s own experience. We also got stories based on video games and more lighthearted topics.
“But I think it’s shown me that personally if I have a passion about something, it doesn’t have to be an activity, but just a feeling that this is something that needs to be changed and I’m passionate enough about it I can make something of it.”
How many students are a part of the Reach Project?
Last summer on the first day we started with 5, which was a little disheartening. But then by the end we had 19 kids, which was a big growth. I have to thank my grandma. She told all her friends about our program. She really pulled through! There’s no strict students who are a part of it because our model was a different unit each month and some students might already know they’re not interested in a specific thing. So we don’t want to keep someone bonded to it. But we would advertise for it as each session came along.
What difficulties did you face while trying to start the Reach Project and how did you overcome them?
I think one difficulty was definitely finding someone else to work with me. This has been an idea in my head after I came to Chapin and realized this was a thing that bothered me a lot. I was a little worried about doing it on my own and not really having a sense of direction. Once I was able to find someone else, I was able to share ideas and bounce ideas off of them. This really gave me a sense of support that I could do this.
And I think next it was really finding support in the community. Right now we are based near where both of us live. Because we wanted to start small, so we could measure how much of an impact we are having. And I think that is a benefit of making this for the community because you can really see how you are affecting people instead of branching out and being all over the place… But it was hard because obviously it was a new thing and parents were hesitant, community leaders didn’t really want to dedicate resources to something so new, and so budgeting was very important and difficult.
What did you learn about yourself during this process?
I think just that community service is very important to me. I think before I wasn’t really able to curate my own sense of identity, but now I can base part of my identity on knowing that I am someone that wants to give back to the community. And so I think it was hard for me to find ways to do that. Mainly I think doing it has shown me that it’s possible to start something. You know growing up I wasn’t the most outgoing person and I’m still not the most outgoing person all the time. But I think it’s shown me that personally if I have a passion about something, it doesn’t have to be an activity, but just a feeling that this is something that needs to be changed and I’m passionate enough about it I can make something of it. Even if it’s small, even if it just helps just 20 kids, even if it’s just in 1 community that aims to later maybe branch out into helping more people. Even if it’s small I could do something and it’s not impossible to start something. I think it’s taught me not to just sit with my feelings, but to do something about it.
How do you see the Reach Project growing in the next year, 2 years, 5 years?
I think that our goals have changed a little bit just because of this spring. Ideally we were going to continue doing additional sessions this spring and then over the summer. I think that is a model we want to stay with. We think 4 weeks or 5 weeks is enough to give students a little bit of a start and if it’s something that they really are interested in, then finding resources for them to pursue it somewhere else. But really knowing that this exists, this is a thing, this is something that you could be interested in.
Because all of our volunteers are high school students whose priorities change over time, so planning on getting volunteers that are younger, that can probably continue it once we’re off to college. But definitely within a year we want to secure long term donors. I think that is a priority because without money you can’t really grow as a program, it’s something that’s so important. We’ve already spent so much of our own money getting supplies for the past summer and that’s not something that is super sustainable. And also identifying new communities in need of our program.
If you would like to know more about and support Ashfah and The Reach Project follow them on Instagram @Ashfah.alam and @OfficialReachProject.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s girl of the month. Please leave any comments you have below and don’t forget to like and subscribe to this blog.