Fifty years ago a group of concerned New Castle residents launched the Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program (CSSP). They were passionate believers in civil rights and following the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations they were hoping to do something on a local level to help academically motivated students in New York City who didn’t have access to the same opportunities as students in Chappaqua. They wanted to share New Castle’s good schools and tranquil suburban setting with these students to offer them a path to academic success which would hopefully lead to subsequent careers at a time when New York City schools were facing an educational crisis.
From Shakespeare to Digital Storytelling
Little did they know that when they set out to create this program, it would still be in existence five decades later and now thriving as a non-profit that has hosted more than 400 students since its inception. Currently students in the program make a three-year commitment to participate in it each summer during the month of July. They are hosted by New Castle families who provide housing during the week while the students participate in an academic enrichment program that includes classes in diverse subjects such as Shakespeare with actors from the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel to digital storytelling at the Jacob Burns Film Center located in Pleasantville.
Originally the program took place at Horace Greeley High School during the school’s summer school program, where both CSSP and Chappaqua students attended classes taught by Greeley teachers. When the Board of Education decided to disband the summer school program in 2008, due to declining enrollment, CSSP had to overhaul the program. Curriculum changes were implemented along with sourcing their own instructors, under the leadership of then chairperson Diane Albert.
Nancy Stein, a Chappaqua resident who has been involved with CSSP for more than 40 years and is currently an ex-officio CSSP board member has seen the program morph over the years. “We’ve always been insistent that the classes that the children take introduce them to something new that they otherwise wouldn’t have experienced.”
Shaping the CSSP Program
Fran Alexander, a board member and creative writing instructor with CSSP, and a 30-year resident of Chappaqua was one of the people involved with the program when it was undergoing its transformation ten years ago. Although it was a lot more “labor intensive” for the CSSP board members, it also gave them a chance to shape the program and reach out to local institutions such as the Jacob Burns Film Center which resulted in a partnership with them.
Swimming and tennis lessons have always been a mainstay of the program since its inception. “These are social sports and we have had many students come back to us and say how glad they were to learn tennis. Many of the CSSP students have not had much exposure to swimming,” explained Stein. They take swim lessons at the Saw Mill Club and tennis lessons at the Seven Bridges Field Club. To help round out the experience this summer, they also participated in additional activities such as mini-golf and bowling.
Although the program only lasts four weeks with the students rotating between host families for two week sessions, its impact is long lasting for both the CSSP students and their host families. Many keep in touch throughout the year and even through college and beyond. Ellen Adnopoz, a CSSP co-chair, points out how much the alumni are still dedicated to the program. Ten alumni spoke at this year’s orientation and several showed up to cheer the students on and participate in another summer ritual, the softball game. “We just can’t seem to separate from CSSP participants and that’s exactly the way we like it.” Some alums have even gone on to serve on the board.
A Formative Experience for All Involved
Vera Abrafi Kyeremeh is a third year CSSP student who attends Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, one of two Bronx high schools that the majority of CSSP students attend. She recently emigrated from Ghana and was reunited with her mother after 13 years apart. “CSSP is a huge opportunity for me. It opened my eyes and made me realize that there is more to life than just going to school. The host families care so much. Two weeks may seem like nothing but getting a place to sleep and waking up and seeing their faces and getting picked up by your family–that builds a connection. They interact with you and ask how your day went and that’s where the connections are made.”
Melissa Labelson Levine, a Millwood resident has hosted Vera for the past three years. Although hosting the same student each summer is not typical, Vera and the Levine family share a special bond. “It has been amazing and she is part of our family. This program has really helped her blossom. When she first came to us she was very introverted but this year she is much more outgoing and she has mentored and taken the first year CSSP students under her wing.” Levine stays in touch with Vera throughout the school year and she has come up for the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival and other events.
Samantha Mortlock has also provided her home as a host family for two years and now serves as a CSSP board member.
“I was absolutely drawn to CSSP because of the opportunity to expose my family to people who don’t come from the same background. To be able to welcome these students into our home is a very great gift for my family. It has helped open our eyes to what is going on only 20 miles away from us.”
Many of the students don’t feel supported or safe in their schools. The issue of school safety was apparent in a recent film screening that the CSSP students unveiled at the culmination of their film class that they took at the Jacob Burns Film Center. The students were asked to develop films that focused on various topics and one was people’s perceptions of the Bronx. In the short film, the CSSP students addressed the positives and negatives of their neighborhoods.
“To give the CSSP students an opportunity where they are completely supported and completely safe for a month and have all the resources to just be able to learn and diversify their experience is amazing. It is great for the students but it also is a really great and eye opening experience for the families,” explained Mortlock.
Nancy Silver has been a CSSP board member for more than two decades and is a co-chair of the program. “This summer I realized that the magic of having these young people at our home impacts all of us and never grows old. While driving on July 4th, one of the students that we hosted had never seen fireworks before and was amazed by the beauty of seeing something so incredible for the first time. We take so much for granted. Everyone says we change lives giving these kids a wonderful summer for three years but the power of this program is far greater for all of us who live in Chappaqua.”
This year, Mortlock was charged with recruiting additional host families. Although she has two young children of her own (ages 5 ½ and 7), she reached out to several families in her daughter’s class and was able to secure additional host families. “Many had never heard of the program.
I think the default is when you have young kids, you think you can’t add any more to your plate. But it really is only two weeks and a minor inconvenience relative to the amount that you are giving to these students and what your family will get out of it.”
Even the youngest children involved with CSSP gain benefits by being part of a host family. Reese Gilvar, an incoming third grader at Roaring Brook Elementary has enjoyed hosting Raimatou and playing Monopoly with her. “My mom is teaching me to be kind and open to other people and to not go on devices when you have guests.”
Ket Hollingsworth, a first year CSSP student feels that living with a host family was a great experience. “It was scary at first but it taught me some important things like how to conduct yourself and make social connections. It also taught me that impressions count. I can’t leave my room a mess for my host family but I do at home,” he laughed.
The host families play a crucial role in the success of the program. “Every one of the kids that comes to the program is just as bright as the kids in Chappaqua. I think the big difference for them is family. Sitting down to a table and eating dinner with the expectation of you participating, that’s what the host families are all about,” explains Stein who will soon be honored in a 50th anniversary celebration for CSSP at the Mount Kisco Country Club on November 4th. Tickets are available at www.chappaquasummerscholarship.com/50th-anniversary
Stein, who organized housing for the students for many years recounts how she still keeps in touch with some of the students she hosted more than thirty years ago. Some of them have become engineers, lawyers, technology consultants and educators. In fact, students from the CSSP program have attended wonderful colleges such as Babson, Brandeis, City College, Dartmouth, Fordham, Howard, Hunter, RPI, SUNY Albany, Binghamton and Stony Brook, Trinity, UVM, Vassar and Wesleyan.
What’s on the Horizon for CSSP
As the program looks toward the future, CSSP is looking at ways to ensure a successful college admissions process. This year Alexander and Young Adult author Phyllis Shalant, who co-teach the creative writing class planned a personal essay session utilizing the top five college essays published by The New York Times. “Our class analyzed why they were chosen.” Alexander finds it very rewarding to work with the students over a three-year period “Not only do I see them grow up but also their writing matures.” Alexander hopes that the class is preparing them to write a great college essay.
In recent years, the program has made a concerted effort to offer more college counseling. Students are offered college essay help, SAT preparation and tours of local colleges such as Manhattanville and once admitted, a generous book stipend. “Some of our CSSP students are the first generation in their families to attend college and we want to help them succeed in college and ensure their graduation,” explains Adnopoz. “To that end, we are making college success more of a focus.”
This past August, CSSP organized its first annual college transition day for students entering college this fall and rising sophomores. The half-day workshop featured a facilitator from the Posse Foundation, a national preeminent college success program. The workshop focused on topics such as high school versus college expectations, navigating imposter syndrome, understanding Myers Briggs types and work styles, selecting courses, time management, managing stress and navigating campus resources and financial aid.
In the coming months, CSSP hopes to begin a formal mentoring program and also a Young Leadership Circle in New York City where CSSP alumni can brainstorm about professional development, network and potentially advise college students on careers.
CSSP students have in different years also heard keynote addresses at graduation from an array of inspiring and noteworthy speakers including this year’s Carlos Lejnieks of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Essex, Sussex and Union Counties NJ, who emphasized the importance of mentoring. Last year, alum Kenneth Padilla addressed the graduates. In past years, Chappaqua’s Bill and Hillary Clinton have each respectively addressed the graduates, too.
Adnopoz is proud of her involvement with the program. “It’s one of the best things about living in Chappaqua. As far as we know, we are the only community in Westchester doing this type of program.” Fellow board member Stein agrees and is hoping that the program continues to thrive. “It would be very sad if CSSP didn’t exist anymore in Chappaqua.”
CSSP is at its heart a grassroots initiative, financially supported through contributions from the Chappaqua community and beyond, primarily from two annual appeal letters. The November 4th event will be the first time the CSSP board has organized a fundraising event of this magnitude. The goal is to help CSSP continue thriving for another 50 years.
For more information, visit chappaquasummerscholarship.com
What CSSP Means to Me: Alumni Perspectives
Inside Chappaqua asked CSSP alumni what the program means to them. It is clear from their responses that this four-week program has a long-lasting impact and was a formative experience for them.
J.D. Candidate, Fordham University School of Law
CSSP Student: 2005-2008
Diaz is currently a rising second year law student at Fordham University School of Law where she is a Stein Scholar and involved with the Fordham Environmental Law Review, Moot Court, and the Latin American Law Student Association. Before law school, she was a paralegal with the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York for three years in the Securities and Commodities Fraud unit.
It has been 10 years since I have graduated from the program and the Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program continues to be a second family and home away from home. CSSP has been with me every step of the way and through every stage of my life from my teenage days to my college days to study abroad days, relationships, my first job out of college, through adulting, and the law school application process. As the first person in my family to graduate from college having CSSP as a resource has been invaluable. I know that I can always count on CSSP and I am forever grateful for all that CSSP has done.
The Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program is an invaluable program that truly changes lives. It determined where I went to college thanks to a host brother who spoke to me about a fantastic liberal arts university I had never heard of, which ended up giving me the best four years of my life. CSSP is a reflection of the power of access to information and knowledge for the underprivileged. It provided and continues to provide a network that does not exist for people of my means. CSSP welcomed me, a stranger, with open arms, and has offered nothing but love, acceptance, support, inspiration, and guidance. I truly do not know where I would be without the program.
Taralyn R. Frasqueri-Molina
Senior Product Portfolio Manager – Legendary Digital Networks
Molina leads teams who build things in the geek and gamer digital streaming space for this California-based company.
CSSP Student: 1992-1994
CSSP taught me there was much more in the world than what was in my own hometown. For some of us attending the program, it may have been the furthest away from home we’d ever gone, and it encouraged us to go even further. CSSP showed me that you never know where you are going to find the things you are going to fall in love with–in three years of summer school, in the homes of strangers, in the faces of new friends, in your own backyard with a new set of eyes. You go, and you return forever changed.
I’d like to think that 24 years later I’m not exaggerating till things become mythic, but CSSP was a profound experience for me. I attribute a lot of that to Mrs. Stein. It was accidental we even met in the first place, as I remember it. My assigned host family became unexpectedly unavailable. And in that coincidental moment, the golden thread that would stretch between us over decades, was designed. I didn’t know it then, I wonder if she did, but Mrs. Stein would become a singularity in my life, a catalyst for irreversible change. Her absolute belief in the strength I already had inside, her unwavering trust that I could make the right decisions and figure out my own path, became part of the foundation, started by my mother, that I continue to use (even in my 40s!) to grow through struggle into illuminated understanding and compassionate action.
Dr. Peter Mercredi, PhD.
Senior Scientist in the Department of Therapeutics Products and Quality at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Facility
CSSP Student: 2000-2002
Dr. Mercredi obtained his Bachelor’s degree from CCNY and his doctoral degree in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Outside of the lab, Peter enjoys biking, hiking, running and spending time with his wife and daughter.
As a 2002 CSSP alum, Dr. Mercredi always reflects on the opportunities he was afforded that otherwise would not be possible. “I had met so many wonderful families and friends during my summer escapes from the Big Apple. These adventurers were filled with learning and new experiences that contributed to my success in a very competitive world. I loved all my host families and enjoyed learning from the many teachers, especially Mr. Furey. One of the many things I will always remember is the welcoming smiling faces from all the organizers as we unloaded from the MetroNorth each Sunday evening. The leadership from people like Mrs. Linda Peterson, Mrs. Nancy Stein, to current board chairs Mrs. Ellen Adnopoz and Mrs. Nancy Silver, are what make this program so successful after a half century.
Environmental Engineer, Arcadis
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Salas has been working as a water resources engineer at Arcadis for five years supporting coastal resiliency efforts in NYC.
CSSP Student: 2006-2008
One of my greatest accomplishments as an engineer was being part of a team that helped to build a floodwall and levee at a wastewater treatment plant deeply affected by Superstorm Sandy. In my personal life, I recently moved to the DC metro area and married my college sweetheart this past spring.
CSSP means family to me. I’m still in touch with my host parents, some of whom have become friends and mentors. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the program. They have helped me achieve significant milestones and continue to provide support to this day.
Professor of Engineering at University of Puerto Rico-Humacao
CSSP Student: 1992-1994 and current Board Member
There’s so much emotion and good memories that CSSP brings to mind. CSSP has marked me for life. Host families taught me the importance of family time, especially around the dinner table. Mrs. Stein, the late Mrs. Peterson, and others provided me with compassionate feedback and encouragement to be my very best; the outdoor/recreational activities opened my world beyond academics and all this with my fellow CSSP classmates to cheer me along during those tough teenage years, WOW!
Recently our family returned home to Puerto Rico, after seven months of being uprooted as a result of Hurricane Maria. Our 6-year-old son never felt at home when we lived in Providence, RI, and constantly prayed for us to return. Upon opening our doors, I realized that ‘There’s really no place like home.”
As cliché as that saying may be, I want to parallel it to what CSSP meant to me. CSSP was an academic program but was also “home” during those three summers. The real gem and cornerstone of CSSP is the realization that an unknown could be welcomed into the home of an equally unknown and form a type of lifetime bond that is found only in a loving family setting. Once I understood that I was at “home,” the academic took care of its self, and I was able to thrive in every aspect, along with my fellow classmates, to exceed all expectations.
CSSP’s founders are true visionaries in the holistic approach taken to design an academically enriching program where the home and host families are at its core; yet I don’t think even they had an idea of the profound impact CSSP would have 50 years later on in so many lives.
I am blessed to have been a part, and grateful for so many who welcomed me “home” week after week, after week.