Like most entrepreneurs, sisters Janine Smalls and Lanise Herman-Thomas of Young Excellence Society (YES) in Harlem, began their organization in 2009 because they wanted to turn their passion into their career, specifically to prepare minority youth for success in college and beyond.
The two women, who were both teen moms, grew up as "latchkey kids" in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and knew there could be a better path.
"We wished we had more outreach and after school programs available to us when we were teens and wanted to do more for our community's youth as adults," Janine said. "We worked first with middle school children because that is the time of life that most predicts who and what you become in life."
"We were exposed to things at an early age that we shouldn't have been," Lanise agreed. "We knew children needed this type of program to be responsible. We didn't want the cycle of teen pregnancies and other situations to continue."
The sisters soon realized that they could start even younger – with elementary school students – to make a bigger impact in shaping the children's futures and establishing good habits.
Janine noted that a large number of students YES works with are first-generation immigrants, many with parents from Africa or Latin America. The organization strives to expose kids to a variety of subjects and interests, beyond what they may get in school or in their home experience. Among the programs offered by YES are art, entrepreneurship, journalism, financial literacy and tutoring for schoolwork. Participants typically have increased their educational level by one grade level after a year in the program.
During the summer camps, the kids go on field trips throughout New York's five boroughs.
"The kids go to museums, amusement parks and more. This is important because many of these children would otherwise never leave Harlem until they were adults," said Janine.
Saying 'YES' when it mattered most
Last spring, Lanise and Janine faced tough decisions, much like other small businesses during the pandemic.
The nonprofit typically offers 10 months of after-school care and two months of summer camps for children in elementary and middle school. But New York's COVID-19 restrictions threatened to shutter their business for weeks or much longer.
"Everything came to a halt and because no one expected something like COVID to happen, we didn't have a back-up plan, but the bills kept coming in," Lanise said.
YES was able to register as an essential learning site with the city, but its capacity was cut in half, from serving 75 to about 30 kids. The program transitioned from afterschool care to running 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays to provide a place for the children to do remote school with help.
"We knew we really needed to keep our doors open for the parents, who are essential workers like police officers and healthcare workers, so they wouldn't have to make tough choices between having childcare, leaving children at home or missing shifts at work," Janine said.
This sudden drop in enrollment was difficult, because YES relies on donations, paid enrollments and city funding to provide its services. With a pandemic comes economic uncertainty, which lowers donations across the board.
Natalie Baker-Waterman, TD Bank Store Manager at 125th Street in Harlem, got in touch with YES to check in on Janine and Lanise. She continued to stay in touch, helping Janine apply for a small Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to help with payroll and other crucial expenses.
"PPP was what we needed and was a blessing," Lanise said. "We were able to continue to pay staff and pay insurance while staying open."
Just as YES works to grow their students, they looked for a financial relationship with the same level of investment. And what they got in return was the same level of care and compassion they give their students.
"Working with TD has been great; I find the bank to be different from others," Janine said. "TD is concerned about the growth of businesses. It feels good to have someone caring about your growth and success like we do for our kids."