The United Palace Theatre was a packed house this past Thursday with students, families, service providers and staff, and community leaders who urged for the restoration of funding.
Photos by Sandra E. García
The United Palace Cathedral was packed this past Tuesday afternoon.
Standing ovations? Check.
Musical performances? Check.
Stomping, clapping and lots of cheering? Check.
But forget any headlining musical acts.
The spotlight was, instead, trained on local families and children that would stand to lose nearly half of the neighborhoods' after-school programs – if the Mayor's executive budget, as proposed, is passed.
In announcing his $68.7 billion budget proposal, Mayor Bloomberg proposed cutting early childhood and after school programs – for the fifth straight year.
Local advocates have estimated that over 2 million dollars stand to be cut directly from local programs, with over 47,000 children in northern Manhattan losing child care and after school programs under the proposed budget after August 30th.
In response, local advocates have mobilized, and this past Tuesday saw a massive rally held at the United Palace Theater's auditorium with thousands of children, families and service providers orchestrating an afternoon program with one coordinated directive to the Mayor and to the City Council: Restore the funding.
"I want to hear a pin drop; I want everyone here to be as quiet as they can," said Soledad Hiciano Executive Director at the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans (ACDP), as she called the audience to order.
"You hear that silence?," she said, her voice building. "That's the noise we've been making for the last five years, and today we are going to let the Mayor hear us!"
Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who was present at the rally, also made his stance on the budget clear.
"I refuse to sign off on this budget until we get all our funding for students back," said Councilmember Rodriguez to the packed auditorium. "The working class in northern Manhattan has been very affected, and we need Mayor Bloomberg to find the necessary funds for after school."
But it was the pleas that came from the youngest in the group that sounded out the loudest.
Soledad Hiciano, Executive Director of ACDP, stands onstage at United Palace Theater with staff and students at a protest rally.
"I need after school, because my mother needs someone to take care of me while she is at work," said 10-year-old Briana Rodriguez, who stood at the podium with a worried look on her face.
"After school is great because the group leaders are always taking care of me. I need the mayor to keep the after schools and give us the money," Rodriguez added.
Rodriguez was not the only one who was concerned.
Eight-year-old Lewis Rodriguez from P.S. 189 said he didn't know what his teacher would say if he didn't do his homework correctly.
"I need my afterschool to stay open," said Rodriguez (no relation to Briana).
"If it was not there, I am not going to know how to do my homework," said the uniform-clad Rodriguez during his turn at the microphone. "And this is important for me because I always need help with my homework."
Parents in the Palace stood on their feet and cheered time and again for the students and speakers.
Many emphasized that he afterschool programs not only allow parents to leave their children in an environment that fosters learning, but also one that is safe.
"I'm fighting against the proposed budget," said Arelis Delao, a Washington Heights resident for over 40 years whose 9-year-old son Luis Delao attends Children's Aid Society Programs.
"There is going to be a domino effect because if this budget gets passed, we are going to have our teens in the street, and our younger ones in the street and the parents who lose their jobs will also be on the street," stressed Delao. "The Mayor is building chaos in northern Manhattan."
Moreover, many parents who struggle with the English language themselves are concerned that the assistance with homework and tutoring their children receive will not be aid they can supplement.
"I don't have [funds] to pay for childcare," explained Beatrice Torres, whose son 7-year-old Brandon Quizeno attends after school at P.S. 28. "The program helps him with his homework, [which] I don't understand it a lot of times."
The proposed cuts are also stirring fear that cutbacks will lead to a new wave of under and un-employment locally.
Program staff members, according to Myrna Torres, Assistant Director for Division of Community Schools for the Children's Aid Society, are right to worry.
"We have a lot of staff that will be without work and many are members of the community who are trying to get through college," said Torres.
To the mayor, Torres spoke directly, "Show that you really care about education and secure the funds."
Advocates have continued to gather together for meeting and days of action in anticipation of the May 24th New York City Council Youth and Education budget hearing.
"This is not going to end here," said Angelo Ortiz,, LCSW-R, Unit Director of Inwood Community Services, Inc./ UNIDOS Coalition Coordinator, who has helped to coordinate efforts with other local service providers. "This will go on until every single dollar is restored. The future of our children, and our community, is not up for grabs. This is non-negotiable."