Volume 74, Number 48 | April 06 - 12 , 2005

A Salute
to Volunteer

Photo By Aaron Fineman/Hikari Pictures

Fay Todd, the Lower East Side Girls Club’s Volunteer of the Year 2005, right, with Jessica Guillon, a Girls Club member.

Blame it all on the cookies: Girls Club volunteer is hooked

By Josie Garthwaite

When the Lower East Side Girls Club announced Fay Todd as their 2005 Volunteer of the Year, the 63-year-old mentor blamed it on the cookies.

Just over two years ago, Todd’s adult daughter bought the fateful batch from the club’s mother-daughter commercial bakery, Sweet Things. Impressed by both the cookies and the cause — teaching the sticky business of entrepreneurship, nutrition and management to girls hands-on — Todd has been volunteering at the club ever since.

While Todd considers her 10-acre New Jersey farm home, the Manhattan native spends two or three nights a week in her New York apartment and devotes three days a week to girls at the club, offering help with everything from literacy to college essays.

Todd is more than an instructor or supervisor, however, and says she’s most interested in establishing trust and communication with the girls. As a mentor, she sees her influence extending beyond homework and applications, describing a recent exchange when one of the girls had plans to go to a party.

“I hope you’re going with friends,” Todd remembers one of the club’s directors saying. “More importantly,” Todd tagged on, “I hope you’re coming back with friends.”

Reflecting on the incident, she quotes a writer she’s returned to many times in her career as a teacher: “It was, as Maya Angelou says, a ‘teachable moment.’”

Those unpredictable moments are what keep her going back, and she finds them in everything. Adriana Pezulli, director of development for the Girls Club, says this attitude has helped Todd give her girls an edge in their schoolwork by making it enjoyable.

If they’re practicing literacy, for example, half of the session will be spent on homework, and half will be spent reading from a magazine.

Todd says a high school senior in her group, Jessica, has graduated from teen magazines to nature conservancy journals in the five semesters she’s been working with Todd. The two will read a magazine together, make vocabulary lists from its articles, and then Jessica will practice writing sentences with them in preparation for her SAT’s.

“We’ve been reading about flying squirrels and tidal pools, so I get to learn, too,” Todd says. “That’s the fun of it.”

Todd studied English at Columbia, but she stresses the importance of innovation in education. “Not everything runs the way an M.B.A. class tells you it should.” The beauty of the girls club, she says, is its flexibility to let things evolve. She mentions chaos theory, but clarifies that the club is rooted in solid organization.

“Where you don’t see chaos,” she explains, “you may not have the firm underpinnings that a place that might seem chaotic does.” At the Girls Club, Todd sees pure confidence in the mission as its firmest underpinning.

Founded in 1996 — 120 years behind the Boys’ Club of New York — the Lower East Side Girls Club represents a long-overdue community labor of love. In the 1980s, as the neighborhood began to pull itself up from decades of hard times, community leaders arose to address low-income housing and land-use issues.

But it took more than 30 Lower East Side women, including mothers, artists, educators, athletes, scientists, businesswomen and activists, to stick up for the girls. According to the club’s Web site, “No one noticed the girls unless they were pregnant or broke the law.”

So they began organizing some more positive options through after-school, weekend and summer programs. Today, the organization serves more than 300 girls ages 8 to 18 and their families.

While the club has its sights set firmly on building a new, permanent facility on Avenue D for their activities, a simpler, although still challenging task is closer at hand. With summer approaching, Director of Development Pezulli says they’re scrambling for funds to send girls to camp. Next month, they’ll host “Cocktails for Camp,” where benefactors can pick up sponsorship kits to help cover the $400 cost for a girl to attend either a local day camp or a sleep-away camp.

Todd does all she can to make opportunities for the girls, but she’s more concerned with living in the moment in her own life.

“I don’t think much about what I’m going to do next,” she says. “I’m much more in the present tense.” She’s certain, however, that the Lower East Side Girls Club will be on her calendar for a long time.

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