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Groundwork Sets Lofty Goals in Brooklyn, Such as a 100% Graduation Rate

August 2, 2004
By JULIA LEVY
Staff Reporter of the Sun

A woman stands a few feet from the fruit and vegetable stand at 595 Sutter Ave. in Brooklyn, surveying the produce.

"I have nice mangos, tomatoes, onions, apples," David Adekoya, 15, tells her. "The lemons are six for a dollar."

The woman moves closer but doesn't say a word. David is persistent. "I have some watermelon in the cooler," he offers.

The woman pulls out her wallet.

"Let me see the watermelon," she says.

The Friday afternoon transaction was another $2 victory for the high school students who stock and operate the Fresh Ground produce stand as part of a business and social responsibility program run by Groundwork, a nonprofit organization that services their East New York neighborhood.

Groundwork started in 2002 with a mission of reaching a "critical mass" of the children who live in three Brooklyn public housing developments: Unity Plaza, Breuckelen, and Fiorentino.

The organization has lofty goals. It wants 100% of its children to graduate from high school,even though four-year high school graduation in the neighborhood hovers around 40%. It wants 100% college attendance. It wants 100% of its children to avoid "negative outcomes" in life, such as teenage pregnancy, drug use, and violent crime.

"The goal has to be 100%. Not to be melodramatic, or overly na´ve, but we can't lose anybody," said Groundwork's founder and executive director, Richard Buery. "Are we a failure if we don't reach that goal in any given year? No. But to me it is a failure if that's not our aspiration."

Mr. Buery grew up in East New York. His mother, who was a public school teacher for 35 years, made sure he studied hard. After middle school, Mr. Buery was admitted to one of New York City's top schools, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He said it was the first time he noticed that access to education wasn't uniform throughout the city.

Mr. Buery attended Harvard University and then went to Yale Law School.

After his 1997 graduation, he clerked for Judge John Walker of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Then he had a series of legal jobs.

"It was all great stuff, but it wasn't really me," he said. "I wanted to work with children, work on a community basis."

So, he came home.

Mr. Buery said he's already reaching about 10% of the young people in the neighborhood, and he plans to reach more. He said the eventual goal is supporting individual children from the time they enter the public school system to the time they leave it - creating a confident youth community where it's considered cool to care about school and important to give back to the neighborhood.

Groundwork's first project was Groundwork for Youth, a literacy-centered after-school and summer program for children between the ages of 7 and 14. Last year, it started Groundwork for Success, a leadership-development program for teenagers that focuses on academic support, college preparation, community service, and work experience.

The Groundwork for Success participants said the program is teaching them valuable skills.

Charysse Mendes, 18, said she's learned how to deal with money, organize, keep sales logs and inventory lists, and cooperate.

Patricia Anyasodor, 17, said she's honing her creativity when she develops business solutions for the stand - like: fruit cups and, soon to come, smoothies.

David said it's almost impossible to find edible fruits and vegetables in his neighborhood.

"You can't find them, or if you do find them, you won't find the good ones," he said. "They'll be rotten, not high-quality good stuff."

He said his work on the fruit stand has given him a chance to address a problem in his community.

"I understand the hardship we go through," he said. "If I can do something about it, I need to."

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