Thursday evening, a man stopped Errol Louis outside of St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights and asked The Daily News columnist if he had any investment advice he could offer in these troubled economic times. Louis considered the question for a moment, hesitant to lead the man astray. Then he answered, "Now is the time to invest in yourself."
For the audience at St. Francis College to whom Louis would recount this story a few minutes later, his advice couldn't have made more sense. This wasn't a group of corporate raiders, moguls, and CEOs, recovering from the bankrupt maxim "greed is good". No, this crowd well understood the value of money and a hard day's work: that both are valueless if not wisely invested in the infrastructure of our souls.
Louis had come as the keynote speaker for The HOPE Program's biannual graduation ceremony, which honors the admirable achievements of HOPE's students, teachers, and volunteers. HOPE is one of the City's finest nonprofits, an organization that gives New Yorkers afflicted by life's most devastating challenges the opportunity to regain their sense of self through the empowerment of gainful employment. The students at HOPE are adults of all ages, many of whom have triumphed over homelessness, drug addiction, and tragedy, thanks to the love of HOPE and the unique appreciation for life that comes from having known a life of hopelessness.
National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, another of the evening's speakers, recalled once asking one of the program's students where he would be if it weren't for HOPE. The man responded: "I'd be dead".
This is the magic of HOPE.
It is not just a program that offers exemplary counseling, professional resources, and job training. It promises its students that no matter how solitary and nasty life may seem, as long as they stick with HOPE they will never again be alone.
The program's luminous Executive Director Barbara Edwards Delsman affirmed this promise when it came time to give each of the students awards recognizing their accomplishements. Rather than first acknowledging those who had found jobs through the program, she praised those who had not yet done so. "Your tenacity inspires us," said Delsman with inspiring sincerity.
One of the students still looking for work is Marisol Carambot. Carambot has almost finished an internship at the Legal Aid Society and resonates the confidence of a woman who knows it is only a matter of time until she succeeds in every way she is determined to do so.
Only three years ago, however, Carambot was living under the Madison Avenue Bridge in Manhattan and dealing drugs on 125th Street to support her own habit. A widowed mother of two beautiful young girls, Carambot hit rock bottom when Social Services took away her children. It was then that Carambot vowed to turn around her life and get back her daughters. Fortunately, she found HOPE.
Carambot was composed and compelling while recounting her past, but it was in recognizing the boundless future ahead of her that she turned emotional. With one of her daughter's looking on from the front row of the auditorium, Carambot spoke through her tears. "Our lives have turned around at HOPE, because HOPE changes lives."
Program graduate Victor Serrano echoed Carambot's sentiments in reflecting upon his own transformation. Currently employed as a machinist who makes signs, Serrano remembered that it was an exchange he had in prison with a man sentenced to life that set him on the path to HOPE. "You know what I miss?" the prisoner confessed to Serrano. "Fridays."
Thanks to HOPE, Serrano now savors Fridays. They mean the end of another week spent doing exactly what he wants to do: work.
Serrano smiles. "I'm even looking foward to paying taxes."