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Graduating seniors get helping hand

Acknowledgement of one’s achievements can be a great esteem booster, especially when such accolades come from trusted loved ones who care. Kind and encouraging words, a look of approval and pride, and even a financial grant can go a long way in planting hope, love, and determination into the heart of a college bound high school senior.

Such was the case recently at the Salvation Army’s Brownsville Corps Community Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., when community leaders, family members, and other supporters gathered virtually via Zoom to award the inaugural Helping Hand Grants (HHG) to three deserving students as they transition this fall from high school to college.

Major Steven Lopes, who along with his wife, Major Valerie Lopes, have been the corps commanding officers in Brownsville for the past two years. They are excited about this unique initiative that has the potential to benefit the local community and be repeated in many others throughout the territory and perhaps the United States.

“In my 36 years with The Salvation Army, this approach to the gospel is a first for me; one that I am honored to be a part of,” said Major Steven Lopes, whose many appointments include having been co–administrator of the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Boston, Mass. “We want to share with others how God is blessing the youth in our community through the Helping Hand Grant ministry.”

Elizabeth R. Edwards, territorial human resources director at The Salvation Army Eastern Territorial Headquarters in West Nyack, N.Y., agrees. “A lot of it is about giving back, particularly to individuals who sometimes don’t have it so easy.”

Edwards spent 30 years of her life growing up in the Brownsville/East New York Community and can empathize with everyday challenges facing its residents. “It is a great community, but unfortunately, it does see elements of crime and harshness that can get it labeled as a bad neighborhood. However, there’s a whole lot of folks there who are doing well, and particularly, young adults.”

The HHG project was born out of Edward’s passion to encourage such young people to rise above those challenges. Her vision puts a spotlight on the kids who often live in the shadows of A–plus academic and athletic achievers or those who consistently make bad choices that may have life–long implications.

“We want to recognize individuals who fall in the middle,” says Edwards. “They don’t get highlighted because they’re not on either ends of the extreme. But they’re doing wonderful and great things;  they’re meeting the challenges of school and everyday life.”

Edwards whose career included recruiting candidates at Fortune 50 companies says sports and academics are just two of the many areas where student achievements can be celebrated. “It’s important to cheer  students on when they want experience higher education, develop their skills,  give back to their community, and strive to be a good citizen!’

“I committed to recognizing those individuals because they’re facing a whole lot of opposition since they live in an underserved community. Yet they get up every day, no matter what they’re facing, and keep striving for more. So, let’s recognize them for their perseverance.”


Partnering with The Salvation Army

The vision for HHG emerged when Edwards realized how she could make a difference through The Salvation Army. She also sees how other Army employees could achieve similar results in their respective communities. “I think a lot of employees could leverage giving back through The Salvation Army. It’s amazing that I had a vision as an employee, was able to airmark my donations for this purpose, and now today we have a great committee that is passionate about the objectives, focused on getting the project done, and have the tools needed for this to happen.”

Infrastructure and oversight to the vision was carried out by Greg Burnett, a former IBM executive of 36 years and now a Salvation Army advisory board member in Connecticut and program director of Encore Fellowships, which matches seasoned professionals with social sector organizations.

“My involvement was to bring some structure to Liz’s idea, and to create the application, interview, and evaluation processes.” Burnett said that Salvation Army leadership in Brooklyn are highly supportive of the project and readily came on board.


COVID–19 impeded the process

Marc Brooks, another HHG committee member, completed the arduous task of contacting school officials to confirm each applicants’ credentials. He also secured recommendations from teachers, instructors, coaches, community leaders, religious leaders, as well as supervisors who worked with the applicants.

“That was a process!” Brooks says. “A lot of people worked from home due to COVID–19 and getting responses from them took time. Some school staff had been rendered inactive.” Nonetheless, Brooks sent emails relentlessly every week. “Once we were able to meet again in person, we reached some level of success.”

As the pandemic diminishes, Brooks looks forward in coming years to producing earlier publicity, receiving more applicants, and gaining greater financial support.

Taking the next step

Students who each received one of this year’s $300 grants have the option to use it towards their tuition, books or supplies. “We simply require that they use it to advance their education, whether it’s attending a four–year university, technical school or community college,” says Burnett.

Charlene Small, a committee member who prepared reports on each applicant, said, “We are simply looking for graduating seniors who are from the Brownsville/East New York area  with a minimum GPA of 2.3 on a 4.0 scale. We just want to know that they are striving towards something and have some type of extracurricular activities.” The graduating senior must attend one of the following high schools: W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School, Thomas Jefferson High School, Brownsville Academy High School, Transit Tech, and Teacher’s Preparatory High School.


A bigger and better tomorrow

“So, our vision now is to get Helping Hand Grants to grow and expand the number of grants,” says Edwards. “We see it growing within the Brownsville/ East New York Community and has the potential to be replicated somewhere else. A key message for employees who are community minded,  who want to make a difference and are ready to give in a variety of ways, is that they, too, can leverage the resources of their employer, The Salvation Army.”

by Warren L. Maye

Are you a 2022 graduating senior?

Completed applications for The Salvation Army Brooklyn Brownsville, N.Y., Corps Community Center Helping Hand Grant must be received by Friday, April 15, 2022.

From the pool of application submissions, applicants will be selected for an in–person interview conducted by the selection committee. Interviews will take place in May 2022.

Contact Steven Lopes at to apply.