Rochester's Children's Zone is re-energized, renamed

By Annette Jiménez/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Back to School


ROCHESTER -- Iris Banister agrees with the catch phrase "It takes a village to raise a child," noting that this sense of caring for each other is what truly makes a village work.

A sense of pride and hope is what the first executive director of Rochester's Children's Zone hopes to instill in city residents. And Banister knows a lot about building up villages after being named in 2001 as Queen Mother Nana Bortsewa I of Winneba, a village in Ghana she first visited following a Pan-African conference a decade ago. Thanks to Rochester donors, Banister, 61, has brought to Winneba a state-of-the-art dental clinic. She also has created an entrepreneurial project to teach its residents about investing, is overseeing completion of an early education center there and does radio shows that are translated into 32 indigenous languages.

For Banister, there are many parallels between the needs of Winneba's people and the residents of Rochester's Children's Zone, a city region bordered by St. Paul St., Norton Street, Goodman Avenue and East Main Street.

"I don't care what language you speak, there are a couple of things that are consistent," Banister said during a July 10 interview at the Children's Zone's new office at 439 Central Ave. "Everybody wants to live in a decent house. Everybody wants to live in a safe environment. You want the best education for your children, and you want to be able to provide for those children by having a good, decent job. And everybody wants to be healthy."

To accomplish these goals in Rochester, Banister said that the Children's Zone board and its action teams -- which address health and wellness, parent and youth support, education, community safety, and housing and community development -- must build partnerships with government and community agencies located in the zone; bring in more businesses to add jobs and offer job training; and garner donations for an endowment that will make the zone self-sustaining.

Since she has lived, worked, raised a family and advocated for families in the city, Banister should be able to move the Children’s Zone agenda forward, said Hilda Rosario Escher, president and chief executive officer of the Ibero-American Action League. But she must act quickly, Rosario Escher observed, because the search process for the executive director took too long, leaving families in the zone wondering if anything concrete would happen.

"She has to continue to energize the community," Rosario Escher said. "I’m optimistic."

Banister said that she is pleased with the level of planning the interim zone directors and initial team members undertook after former Rochester City School District Superintendent Manuel Rivera proposed the Children's Zone idea four years ago.

Rivera had based Rochester's initiative on the Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada created in Harlem to provide educational support for children. Rivera proposed that Rochester's zone would provide around-the-clock support for students in the district's seven neediest schools to improve their education, health and living conditions, and develop future job prospects.

Since Rochester’s model is focused on a more holistic approach of improving the entire community -- whereas Harlem’s focus is on education -- Banister said that the zone’s name will become Rochester Surround Care Community Corp.

Using this holistic approach, Banister wants to work with agencies in the zone to develop a collective vision for what they can accomplish.

"One of the things I want to be very clear about is that I’m not here to usurp anybody’s authority," said Banister, who also is an assistant minister at St. Luke Tabernacle Community Church. "We’re not here to replace any organizations. What we’re here to do is to strengthen what we have, add those new initiatives that we need, and make sure that children are the beneficiaries of what we do."

Rosario Escher said that one of the zone's first initiatives began in 2006, when Ibero created at Dag Hammarskjold School No. 6 a suspension-prevention and after-school program that also offers parental support..

"That's working very well," Rosario Escher said of the program. "It's one way we tried to maintain the Children's Zone alive."

Banister's goal of creating more such partnerships within the Children's Zone is vital, said Dawn Borgeest, senior vice president and chief corporate-affairs officer with the United Way of Rochester.

"We have a considerable investment in the Rochester Children’s Zone, including many programs that help youth avoid risky behaviors and help ... ensure safer neighborhoods," Borgeest added. "The issues facing our community are complex and multidimensional. United Way believes that working collaboratively with other community agencies and organizations is the most effective ways to enact positive change in our community."

City Councilman Adam McFadden, Children's Zone board president, said that the board believes Banister is just the right person to establish such collaborative relationships. Her ability in this regard -- as well as her work as executive director of Wilson Commencement Park, which provides housing to families who need help establishing financial independence -- were two reasons the board chose her as executive director after conducting two formal searches, McFadden said.

"She's very dynamic," said McFadden, who also serves as executive director of Quad A for Kids, a volunteer organization that provides athletic and artistic activities for children to reduce juvenile social problems in the city. "Of all the people I know ... she has so much positive energy that I can't see anyone being mad at her. It's very good."

An Oklahoma City native, Banister first moved to Rochester more than 40 years ago and taught at the former School No. 9. She said that she quickly learned that a teacher had to move from behind the desk in order to create change. She later worked as principal of the Charter School of Science & Technology and program administrator at the Senior High Alternative Program of Education. Currently, Banister is working on a doctoral degree at the University of Rochester in counseling, specifically geared toward girls.

Banister, who said that she has seen many of her former students during her walks throughout the Children's Zone, noted that her three sons also attended city schools and have gone on to study at Princeton University, Duke University and Langston University.

"These boys want to come home," she said. "But when they look at coming home (they ask), ‘What does that mean? How do I use my talent and my skills to come home and make a reasonable living?’ The question mark is still there."

The zone is ready to move ahead on two projects that could foster an attractive living and work environment for young people, Banister said.

The first, put forth by the zone's health and wellness team, will attempt to create "villages" within the zone by encouraging residents of two or three neighboring streets to get to know each other and start working together, she said. With the support of the Rochester Health Foundation, the team will work with these newly created villages to determine their specific needs related to improving health and making each village stronger, Banister explained.

"Once you realize that from a health perspective, you’re going to say, 'Oh, yeah, we need this.' They’ll find themselves reaching out to other teams and organizations," she added. "That’s the way. You plant the seed. You water it and till around it until it grows."

Julio Vázquez, the city’s commissioner of community development, said that he likes the sound of this team’s idea.

"From the beginning, I’ve been very supportive of the Children’s Zone," he said. "I believe they need to concentrate on a small area first and not try to do much. If they choose a big area ... it will require too many resources, and I’m afraid it’s not going to be too successful."

Vázquez added that he also looks forward to meeting with Banister about bringing more businesses into the zone, an effort on which city officials also have been working, and he agreed that business development should be part of the zone’s efforts.

"If we can get (people) rallied and moving and implementing, and if we can get agencies to continue to do what they’re doing and even elevate the level of excellence of what they’re doing and unite in efforts, we will do this," Banister remarked. "We will do this -- get business people to come and bring businesses into the zone to invest. ... You’ve got to get people to come and live and work and be a part of the zone."

The second zone project about to be launched focuses on boosting youth involvement, which is an important component, said Charlie Richardson, a community advocate who took part in the zone planning process.

Banister noted that the zone’s youth team soon will blanket the area to survey their peers on school involvement and attitudes about school and school personnel. Once they have collected the data, the team will make a documentary and public-service announcements, she said, adding that she also hopes team members will be able to present their findings to the City Council and the Monroe County Legislature.

"We can't overlook these youths anymore," Richardson said. "They've really got good ideas ... and they want to be involved."

Banister also noted that she hopes to add a board seat for a youth or young adult.

Richardson said that he believes Rochester's zone can be effective, based on the transformation he has seen in Harlem. He has visited the area in recent years and is amazed how different it is from many years ago when he traveled downstate with his young son for Yankees baseball games and didn't go anywhere near Harlem out of fear for their safety.

"Now with that whole area ... all the stores are busy, houses are more expensive and kids are being educated," he added.

Banister remarked that change will happen if the community believes it can.

"I’ve said this a thousand times and I will continue to say that I’m just so proud of all the work that’s been done," Banister said of the planning and development of zone projects. "They (planning teams) did not run in haste and just start doing things. They were deliberate in their thinking. Teams have been working in concert with people from every walk of life, those who live in the zone and those who don't."

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