From left, Dorian Jay Paat, Yaaserwaah Akuoku, Eric Kibanda, Adam Bucko, Lyssette Horne, David Gonzalez and Devin Snow at The Reciprocity Foundation.
Leaving the shelters, finding a home in creativity
By Lucas Mann
Seven years ago, when he was 14, David Gonzalez began what would become a teenaged life on the streets. Kicked out of his home after admitting to being sexually abused, Gonzalez, who had lived in both Harlem and Queens with his family, was left homeless and panicked and ran to Downtown Manhattan.
I lived in Covenant House [on W. 17th St.] for a while, but I really hated it there, he said. I was in and out of halfway homes and out on the streets. It was the worst time in my life horrific, confusing.
The one positive that Gonzalez took from his harsh entrance into a new life was the neighborhood where he ended up.
I found comfort in the Village and in Chelsea, he said. Thats where I found my friends. It was different than anything Id ever seen. All of a sudden, theres gay people and galleries, concerts, theaters. His surroundings opened up a passion in Gonzalez for the arts, particularly fashion design. All he needed was to find someone to teach him how to tap his creative talent but he was preoccupied trying to find where he would sleep the next night.
Gonzalez, like other homeless youth in Manhattans Downtown area, as well as all over New York City, found the answer to his dilemma in The Reciprocity Foundation. The organization instructs homeless youth who want to work in the creative industries how to navigate the professional world. Now a graduate of the program, Gonzalez, who spent all of his high school years without a steady home, has a paid position at The Reciprocity Foundation working as the design and marketing manager.
The Reciprocity Foundation has relationships with almost all the citys homeless youth shelters, working closely with Covenant House in Chelsea; The Door on Broome St. in Hudson Square; FIERCE!, a constant presence on the Christopher St. Pier; and Green Chimneys in Harlem, which houses L.G.B.T. kids. Like the kids in all these programs, Gonzalez was fortunate to have received outreach, which changed his life.
On a recent Monday, Gonzalez sat with a new crop of Reciprocity Foundation kids whom he helps mentor, as they discussed their ambitious new project: a professionally produced music CD called Labor of Love.
Im a producer/manager, Dorian Jay Paat said confidently. I help the artists out, make them feel comfortable, help out in the studio, write some lyrics. Though entering the program like Gonzalez as a teenager with no options living in a Downtown shelter Paat had spent the previous few weeks learning his way around a professional music studio and helping to cut tracks.
Another young artist, Lyssette Horne, had been focusing her talents on the visual side of the project, designing the cover photo.
Were still working on some different ideas, she said. Its basically showing all of the artists and trying to convey our ideas, our motives and our struggle.
That struggle about which Horne spoke is what Gonzalez said makes the voices of these determined youth something that the creative world really needs to hear.
When youve had a hard life, you either wallow in that or you can use it to express what youve seen in a unique way that other people cant, Gonzalez said. I think that companies need what we have. So much seems rehashed right now, and our kids are coming with a completely different, real perspective.
What they also come with is a work ethic and an appreciation of their opportunity and their surroundings.
Downtown New York is like a beacon of hope for a kid, exclaimed Devin Snow, a singer/songwriter who was the first to conceive of Labor of Love. I came from Rochester, N.Y., which is really slow, with nothing, and you come here and you have to hit the ground running. Everything is happening right here around us.
Added Paat: Im from the Bronx and ending up at the shelter Downtown was a completely different experience. I looked around and thought, This is where its at, I need to milk this. It shows you that the world is bigger than just your block and your projects.
What is remarkable is just how much of the creative world the youths at The Reciprocity Foundation are exposed to in their three-month semesters. Each class they take is taught by an individual at the top of his or her creative industry.
We work kids hard. Its a strict curriculum, said Adam Bucko, who co-founded the foundation just two years ago. Its different creative industries and the practical skills related to succeeding in those industries. One example: We had someone from Calvin Klein come and teach and then we asked the kids to design things specifically modeled toward Calvin Klein.
The results are partnerships that are quite unique in the increasingly ritzy world of Downtown creative industries. As well as changing the way kids like David Gonzalez see the world and themselves, Reciprocity Foundation is also bucking trend and showing big business what a group of local homeless youths have to offer them.
In a sense, part of what we do is corporate advocacy, Bucko said. We have to go out there and educate senior board members on what these kids can do and why they should come here. We educate them on how to become better, more responsible corporate citizens.
It is a successful odd-coupling that Gonzalez can only see happening in Downtown Manhattan.
I mean, I never thought of myself as being able to talk to someone from Gucci, but were trying to democratize the industry process, he explained. And the perfect place to start that is Downtown; its where creative industry lives. You have the Village, the Meatpacking District, theres so many opportunities that kids dont think are possible.
And for their part, the teenagers who earn their way into The Reciprocity Foundation do not take their tasks lightly. Gonzalez was amazed when he watched the young artists start acquainting themselves with the professional music studio equipment that Syncopate, a corporate team-building company, set them up with.
They just picked it up, he laughed. I couldnt believe it. They were shown how to use the equipment and in a couple of hours they had these amazing tracks down.
Theres a hunger that you get once youve had nothing and you get a little taste of being able to do something creative, Horne said. You want it so badly.
Eric Kibanda, a producer on the album, put it simply: Where I come from, Yonkers, all I had was music. It was in me. Coming Downtown and meeting Adam just helped me do it.
While the album is not finished and recording it is still a learning process, what is completed is the kids adoption into a new sort of family at The Reciprocity Foundation. Many of them, like Gonzalez, are from the L.G.B.T. community and have dealt with prejudice their whole lives. Others havent been exposed to many gay people. They all get along.
Somehow, theres been no problem at all, Gonzalez said. These kids are coming here for the same goal and seeing each other every day. We have a transgendered person in our group this year and everybody knows and incredibly none of the kids judge her for that.
Gonzalez said that when he was a participant in the program, just one year ago, it was more dominated by the L.G.B.T. community. This year, he said, with increased outreach into homeless shelters citywide, the foundation has brought in a class reflective of a broader spectrum of lifestyles and backgrounds. Despite their differences, their common experience of homelessness and common goal of creative success has shaped them into a group who look at The Reciprocity Foundations offices at 100 Church St. as something of a family home.
Just the atmosphere of this room gives me release and makes me feel safe, said Snow, looking around at his friends and collaborators on the CD, who nodded in agreement. Months ago, the only thing this group of kids had in common was that they didnt have a home. Now, they share a creative project and a group work ethic. Together, they meet designers and executives, they sit behind a soundboard and mix their CD.
Yaaserwaah Akuoku told her peers that she had landed an internship at Chaps Ralph Lauren. The group reacted like a proud family. Next year, shell attend fashion school in Italy, benefiting from yet another aspect of The Reciprocity Foundations program that finances the youths college education.
For Gonzalez, dressed immaculately in a tight, shiny black vest and red tie, Downtown Manhattan is no longer just a place in which to try and survive, while looking on as an outsider. Its a place where he feels he belongs. He has a mentor who is a top interior designer, and he is working on a line of T-shirts for The Reciprocity Foundation. The CD is slated to be done by early fall. It will debut at the foundations Power Couples Benefit, celebrating a program that matches homeless kids up with artists to create something together.
At 21, Gonzalezs life today is a far cry from the homeless existence he led even at age 20, let alone at 14, when he first met the streets of Greenwich Village under much harsher circumstances.