When Jennifer Joyce joined the Fresh Air Fund last month, she said it felt like “all of the things that I’ve been doing my entire life lined up to land me in this perfect opportunity.” As the nonprofit’s new development director, she explained, “A lot of the different ways that I have raised money in the past culminated in a passion of mine, which is children.”
The organization has been committed to nurturing unprivileged youth in New York City since 1877 with mentoring, tutoring and summer programs. In her role, Joyce oversees their events, major gifts, grants, direct marketing and volunteer outreach.
One of the benefits to her new office space is that it allows her daily interaction with the Fresh Air kids who come in for tutoring and mentoring. Joyce has already been gearing up for their summer programs, a camp on 2,000 acres in Fishkill, New York, and the Friendly Towns program, where host families take in Fresh Air children in their rural and suburban communities.
Joyce’s dedication to serving in the nonprofit sector came after she left a job at Morgan Stanley to do relief work in Sri Lanka after it was devastated by a tsunami. After returning to New York, she held positions at the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, Food Bank For New York City and Citymeals on Wheels.
What made you leave Morgan Stanley to serve in Sri Lanka?My father had passed away and my brother and I decided to go to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. It was a two-week trip where you could go and help rebuild some of the homes. And I found this orphanage that had about 60 babies and only four people taking care of them. It was like nothing we could even imagine. You just walk in and all of these children would have their arms up, waiting to be held or fed or paid any attention to. So I wound up deciding to stay there for almost a year’s time. I came back and left my job and went back to work in Sri Lanka and lived outside of the orphanage, but basically spent every day there. It was an amazing time where there were many people from all over the world there doing relief work. It just took my career in a whole new direction, where I was needed most and where I was happiest.
Through your experience at the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, what would you want people to know about the homeless in the city?I think in a lot of the populations that I’ve worked with, also at Food Bank, that often we think it’s because of something that someone has done wrong, when, in fact, it is often just circumstantial. And a lot of really bad luck. Some of the people I worked with at ACE were maybe the first people in their family to ever hold a job. And things like, to call in when you’re sick, was something that they didn’t really know how to do. Or the idea that once you are homeless, it’s hard to break down, step by step, what you need to do next to get back on your feet. So it seems like an overwhelming thing, but it could have been just a bad circumstance, like an illness, that got you out of work and you were evicted. There are mental health and addiction issues with the population, but that’s not across the board. And even that is not the fault of the person who is dealing with those diseases. And the same is true with the Food Bank, one in five New Yorkers use the Food Bank at some point during the year, which means that could be the person who is next to you at work who has to buy their kids’ school books that month, so they need to spend a few nights eating dinner there.
Explain your volunteer work with the Women’s Prison Association. It’s the only shelter in New York where you can live with your children. The kids are living there because their mothers have recently, or at some point, gotten out of jail. Their mothers are dealing with a lot, so I go on Monday nights and their mothers will be getting their GEDs, and I watch the kids. Those are some of, literally, my proudest moments. Taking the kids to the theater or the zoo and seeing just how happy and resilient children are when given a small thing, which is a little bit of your time. And how much they appreciate it and how alive they become.
In your own words, what is the Fresh Air Fund’s mission?To give children opportunities that they don’t normally have. To show them different experiences, and to open their eyes to their own potential. To allow them to be kids and see how many people care about them. And to see what the world is outside of what they know.
What can you tell us about the children who are part of the organization?All of the kids are from underprivileged neighborhoods. They have struggled with a lot of things in their lives, probably more than any child should know. A lot of them travel more than an hour to get to and from school. These kids are also the most resilient and hard working. They are curious and eager. They are looking for options for themselves, so we do job shadowing and mentoring. They also make lifelong friends with people who might be in similar positions, or with a lot of the camp counselors were once campers. They also have mentors who know what it’s like to be a child in their position. June Ambrose, who’s our newest board member, is a huge name in hip hop. She’s a brand ambassador for Jay Z and millions of names. She was a Fresh Air child and speaks to the children, showing the kids the potential that they have and that they really are our future. And I think that’s really all the children need to know, is that there’s hope.
What are you working on now?On Friday, I went to the camp, which is Sharpe Reservation, 2,000 acres and five camps on that land where the children go in the summer, free of charge. The kids from the neighborhoods in the city go and have two weeks to just be a kid – to learn to swim, do arts and crafts, connect with peers and mentors. They have a planetarium and a ropes course. It’s really a Disneyland for children; it’s amazing. And I think a lot of what I’m doing now is figuring out how we can get more kids to go camp and raise more money.
Tell us about the Friendly Towns program. Families sign up to take on an inner-city child, and the kids go to another family in the country. They go out to some different part of the country or Canada and they live with this family and have a completely different experience outside of their own. The Fresh Air child has an entire other family. The kids become best friends. They learn a whole different culture. Both the families and the Fresh Air children get a lot of it, almost equal to one another. The families who take the children in were saying that their kids totally change because they recognize some of the things that they have that other kids don’t have. And they build these long-lasting friendships with somebody that they might not otherwise get the chance to meet or understand.