POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. –Football aired on the television, pie was served at the table, and this traditional Thanksgiving dinner acted as the catalyst for Arlene Dyer’s future.
Dyer works as a special education teacher during the day. She spends her afternoons and nights volunteering as the coordinator of the Bridges to Hope tutoring program in Poughkeepsie.
Bridges to Hope runs under the non-profit organization Youth Mission Outreach (YMO). Elementary students from Poughkeepsie come to Bridges to Hope Wednesday’s from 3-5 p.m. for snacks, games, and a safe place to complete their schoolwork.
“We always had a tutoring component in YMO,” said Dyer, “but I would say about five to six years ago, after I graduated from SUNY New Paltz, we really developed a structured tutoring program.”
YMO started with a group of three boys in 1992 and ran out of, now executive director, MaryNell Tyner’s family pizzeria. What began as a group of children listening to bible stories while eating a hot meal has grown into a non-profit organization. All eight of the part time staff volunteer their time to YMO and the programs that fall underneath it.
“It’s easy to get lost in logistics, [and] finances,” said Tyner. “Finding time to spend with the kids who are changed by the program [is what keeps me motivated].”
Dyer’s involvement with YMO started when she was a student at SUNY New Paltz. One of her friends, who attended YMO as a kid, invited Dyer to attend a Youth Night with him.
“We came and kind of never left,” said Dyer.
Dyer graduated from SUNY New Paltz in December of 2005 and returned to her home in Brooklyn where she started teaching at a local school and attending grad school. She felt a desire to return to the area despite having a stable life in the city. Dyer made the move to Poughkeepsie during the summer of 2006 without a job or apartment, but had a plan to begin working with YMO again.
“She’s very successful, really good with kids, goofy, and professional,” said Todd Snead, the pastor at In Christ United Church and Dyer’s friend of ten years.
These characteristics stemmed from her family’s involvement in community service. Dyer developed her love of volunteering from her mother. One Thanksgiving, Dyer’s mother invited a few people from the neighborhood who were struggling to come and enjoy the holiday with her family. Dyer’s mother spent time with the guests while other family members kept to themselves.
“She was thinking about others,” said Dyer.” “Just to sit down, eat some pie with you, watch football on TV with you, treat you like you’re just as great as any one of us. I just thought that spoke volumes and even though she doesn’t have a title she never went to college all these different accolades that people look for, like wow that’s what I want to be like.”
Dyer’s background in the volunteering and education field made her decision to head Bridge to Hope a natural progression. Dyer now looks for local students to contribute to Bridges to Hope’s volunteer network.
Emma Borg, a graduating senior at Marist College, started volunteering with Bridges to Hope during the second semester of her freshman year. The bond she’s developed with Arlene has motivated her to return each semester.
One of the main ways Marist students, Borg included, become involved with Bridges to Hope is through the Campus Ministry weekly community service.
“The students love her,” said Brother Michael Flannigan the director of Campus Ministry weekly community service. “In fact, in one of the evaluations… it said what would you change and one of them said, ‘Change nothing. Especially don’t ever let Arlene leave.’ I don’t have power over that, but that’s just the impact that she’s had on her students.”
The relationship that grows between the volunteers and kids lasts long past their days at the program.
“The most successful [kids] I see are the ones who didn’t always make the right choices,” said Tyner. “[It’s the] kids who write me from prison, kids who are still working on their anger issues behind bars.”
Dyer still hits roadblocks when it comes to developing relationships with the kids despite her dedication to the programs mantra “inspiring change through relationships.”
“Just like with anyone else, when you know someone really cares about you, sometimes you push them away the most. So we have a lot of those situations,” said Dyer. “And it’s not just cookie cutter; so pretty and simple. They’re hurting children, they’re coming from rough lifestyles and so that’s sometimes difficult to deal with.”
Last semester Dyer experienced firsthand a situation of resistance with one of the tutees. A boy who has attended Bridges to Hope for four year told Dyer that he hated her and proceeded to say that he would not return to tutoring. He left in September and didn’t return until the last week in February.
“I thought I was not going to see this little boy ever again,” said Dyer. “So [when] he came back and it was like nothing even happened. They know that there’s an unconditional love here.”
Dyer’s hard work and dedication to the kids is seen in students’ excitement to attend the program each week.
“She’s fun and she makes me happy,” said Dylan Johnson, a third grader who attends Bridges to Hope.
Dyer is constantly working to improve upon the foundation she’s built thus far at Bridges to Hope.
“Our name, YMO, is symbolic because we believe when we reach out to the youth… we need to build them up to let them know they can do all things,” said Dyer.
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