Nonprofit Addresses Critical Issues While Increasing Civic Pride

One summer afternoon in July, an impressive group of 2,000 people – mostly parents and their children – gathered at Destiny USA for Summer Learning Day. Besides having fun with the interactive crafts and sing-alongs, children chose from thousands of age-appropriate books to bring home. Organized by the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County (LCOC), the event aimed to help address the “summer learning gap” that can be prevalent in young children while on school break.

Distributing free books that day was Believe in Syracuse, an organization that aims to increase positive perceptions in Central New York. Established in 2013, it is a nonprofit at the intersection of civic pride and civic engagement.

“Back when I started Believe in Syracuse I was thinking how cynicism and apathy were really holding leaders back from doing big things and being able to accomplish positive change in the community.” said founder and executive director John DeSantis. “We’ve generated a lot of excitement, a lot of energy and put that to work to try to better the community through our community service program and the neighborhood initiatives we’ve done over the years.”

Believe in Syracuse’s Community & Caring Initiative works to create purposeful philanthropic opportunities for community members to support the essential needs of the Greater Syracuse community. The initiative holds quarterly donation drives, each one focused on providing goods to a local agency that is working to improve the quality of life in Syracuse.

The Central New York Community Foundation provided a grant to help support the Community & Caring Initiative’s projects throughout the year. Earlier this summer, the Initiative hosted a Summer Youth Literacy Book Drive, which collected more than  2,500 books for various reading levels ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“The lack of literacy skills is a big contributor to kids getting behind in school,” says DeSantis. “We’re focusing on children in kindergarten through fifth grade because that’s when kids are really learning to read, and if they don’t gain those skills early on, they are likely to fall behind.”

The “summer slide,” or loss of important academic skills over summer vacation, has lasting impacts on a child’s life. A 2007 study reported two-thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap can be a result of disproportionate access to summer learning and reading opportunities during elementary school years, according to the New York State Department of Education.

In Syracuse, gains have been made through many collaborative efforts to improve local literacy rates. Between the 2011-2012 school year, and the end of the 2014-2015 school year, seven percent fewer kindergarten through third grade students living in the highest poverty neighborhoods in Syracuse experienced summer learning loss, according to LCOC.

Believe in Syracuse also runs an ongoing initiative called Book Swaps to address both adult and child literacy. Throughout the city, big mail box-like structures contain free books for adults and children to leave and take.

“Through Book Swap, we are addressing adult literacy as well as youth literacy; and finding community locations that provide ongoing access to books,” explained Sally Sayles-Hannon, chair of the community service committee.” A lot of the libraries in the community don’t have extended hours or people don’t have the transportation needed to get to them, so there is a need for something like this.”

In August and September, the Community & Caring Initiative will host a feminine hygiene drive for the benefit of women and girls in the Greater Syracuse area. The drive focuses on distributing necessary feminine and sexual hygiene products to homeless, low-income women, and refugee women.

Soon Believe in Syracuse will host the Greater Syracuse Arts and Culture Festival, an exposition of over 60 arts and cultural organizations and live music on August 18 at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

In the future, DeSantis hopes to grow the organization, “When we talk about the positive things that are happening and start to change the conversation and narrative, you see more young people and more college educated people choosing to live in the community and contributing to the society. We’ll be solidifying and growing our programs more and making a bigger difference in the community.”

To learn more about Believe in Syracuse, their events, and how to get involved, visit believeinsyracuse.org.

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