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Helping Homeless Kids for 25 Years: Queens College's "Big Buddy" Mentors

-- Begun by Educator Arthur Salz, Big Buddy Program Teams Children in Queens Shelters with College Students; 1200 Homeless Kids Have Participated Since 1989 -- 

FLUSHING, NY, October 30, 2014 – Carlos Castillo, now a 14-year veteran of the NYPD, vividly remembers the trauma of returning home from school in Brooklyn to see his family’s possessions piled up on the sidewalk. After living in public housing, a dangerous hotel, and a borough shelter, Carlos, his mother and siblings eventually landed in a homeless shelter in Jamaica. The year was 1989.
Life changed for him the day that Carlos, then 11, met Ximena Rua-Merkin, a 20-year-old Queens College student from Bolivia. She was among the first to participate as a mentor in the newly established Big Buddy program for elementary-school-age children in Queens shelters. Every Saturday morning for a year, Ximena picked up Carlos and Natasha, 8, and off they went, often to Manhattan, visiting museums, parks, street fairs, the zoo and other activities that exposed the children to a larger, more hopeful world.
Carlos and Ximena have remained good friends ever since. “Ximena was a lady who made a big difference to me as a shelter kid,” he says. “She is a very loving, caring person and became like a mother to me.” Says Ximena, now a consultant to non-profit organizations, “He was the little brother I never had…He was talkative, inquisitive, and connected with everyone,” she recalls. “My first impression was that he would either be a trouble maker or a leader.”
Avoiding drugs, gangs and a life on the street, Carlos went on to earn an Associate’s degree at Kingsborough Community College while working nights at a bank. He has been promoted in his police career and now focuses on identity theft investigations.
Now a resident of Cambria Heights, Carlos is one of 1,200 children in Queens’s three shelters who have had the benefit of trained student mentors in their lives since the Big Buddy program began.
Big Buddy was the brainchild of Arthur (Arty) Salz, now Professor Emeritus in Queens College’s Department of Elementary Education. “I was on sabbatical at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and learned about their program for children of indigent families,” he says. “When I returned to QC in 1989, I knew I wanted to start something similar here.”
With seed money from then-borough president Claire Shulman, the program began—but not before convincing the parents. “They had been disappointed by other programs that started up but then fell through,” Salz says. Big Buddy has stood the test of time although raising funds to keep it going remains a challenge.
The main objective of Big Buddy, according to Salz, is to provide each homeless child with a friend, confidante, and role model during an exceptionally difficult time of his or her life.
Students from any major can participate but must commit to two semesters of mentoring. They receive training, and the homeless parents, usually single mothers, attend an in-depth orientation. Several times a year, all Big and Little Buddies come together for a special event such as a Mets’ baseball game or an expedition to Harriman State Park upstate. (“I can see the sky!” one child exclaimed on his first trip out of the city.) The students receive credit, as well as $12 a day, which mainly covers transportation for their outings.
“All research indicates that homeless kids fall behind in school,” says Salz, but the Big Buddies help to counter the trend. Although no formal tutoring takes place, the children benefit educationally in an informal way. They keep journals and take photos of their activities for a scrapbook, writing captions that tell a story, which helps build literacy. Every Big Buddy also brings along a children’s book to read aloud on Saturdays. This year, Salz has established a relationship with the Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Park, where children will go on private tours and interact with educators in small groups.
Although retired, Salz is still running Big Buddy with the help of two coordinators: Cheryl Marmon-Halm, a retired principal of a Queens elementary school, and Elizabeth Schneider, a school librarian--both adjuncts in the Queens College Department of Elementary Education.
In 1989, there were 10,000 children living in homeless shelters. Today there are 26,000 on any given night. “With so many homeless children in New York City, Big Buddy is more crucial than ever,” says Salz. Carlos Castillo and Ximena Rua-Merkin couldn’t agree more.


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