Our Story

Excerpt From Young Faces Smiling: Changing Lives
Written By: Ms. McClarty

harlemGrowing up in Harlem was not easy, and telling the entire story would take several novels; therefore, I will give you just a taste. I was born and raised on 129th Street and Lenox Avenue, one of the worst blocks in Harlem. I was born in an environment (HARLEM) where selling drugs, using drugs, and becoming a thug were common goals for kids. I desired to be a part of the streets at a very young age. I never had a desire to use drugs, but for sure I wanted to sell drugs and count drug money. This may sound odd, but my deepest desire was to make enough money to get as far away from the hood as possible. In my days, people from Harlem accepted whatever life gave them. They survived it or died. It is worth noting that, I use the word rebellious because that is how adults saw me. However it is not a word I like using to describe people. Rebellion implies “oughts” and “shoulds” and rules of respectability that children are forced into. However, I have learned that “rebellion” looks a lot like needing to be heard, needing to pursue their interests, needing to be creative, needing positive attention, and most of all needing care, genuine concern, and love. My “rebellion” meant all those things and more.

One fight in particular in all probability would have landed me in jail had I not been in elementary school. An argument with a boy in my class turned into a fight in the schoolyard during lunchtime. Fearless, I was eager to drag him along the schoolyard fence situated behind the famous Apollo Theater and prove I was not a person to mess with, and no one in school should ever want to fight me again. Tinged in ruthlessness, my reputation grew in importance. Thank God they did not arrest me in the fourth grade, but I paid a dear price for the fight when I walked through the doorway of my apartment. My mother expected me to take my education seriously and use it to empower myself amid my surroundings, not cause problems at school. Unfortunately, fighting remained an integral part of me as I grew up as a kid. I did not even flinch in the face of discipline in the church, schools, and in the streets. Discipline failed to elicit tears. I had to prove that “I am Harlem. We fear no one, nothing and Harlem does not cry.” In my days, people from Harlem accepted whatever life gave them.

front-coverHaving made it past eleven, I figured death at the age of twenty-five was my reality because fighting happened regularly in Harlem. I knew my mother was growing weary of me. However, my mother made a major move one day that saved my life. In the middle of a conversation with me, she said, “This will be the last time I will discipline. I got something and somebody for you. I am calling Dr. Young.” My mother was on the phone immediately with Dr. Young telling her again about my terrible behavior. My mother continued telling Dr. Young that being a single parent was becoming too difficult for her. She had exhausted all other possibilities to make my life better. After my mom vented, she held out the phone, gesturing to me that Dr. Young wanted me to come to her house. Dr. Young often wondered why was I fighting so much as a child. She wanted to figure out why was I such a problem. She wanted me around her to help raise me and change my life since my mother had no family in New York State. Being around Dr. Young was a punishment to me as a child.

It took a long time and many years, to learn the lessons my mother wanted me to learn by spending time with Dr. Young. Dr. Young eventually became my mentor guiding me through life most difficult times. Dr. Young imparted so much wisdom and knowledge into my life. She taught me various skills for life along with etiquette. She often mention that I could be more, have more and do more with my life. Most of all, she often said that, “when you become more, have more, and do more with your life; it is for the sole purpose of being able to do more for others.” Years later, it became clear. As the great African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” for sure, it took several people to raise me. Dr. Young was a major part of that village. Dr. Young changed my life for the better. Dr. Young as a pastor has always loved kids and I was not the only one she helped. She helped so many kids and families in her community as well. What may have been some of my classmates’ misfortunes were not my own. I was able to go to college and graduate with a master’s degree in elementary education before twenty-four.

College was the best years of my life despite me not being a scholar. It transformed my destiny. Meeting positive people from so many different walks of life changed my entire outlook on education. My high school was a wonderful place to see so many African-American students beat the odds with education. However, on the other hand college was an entire different ball game. People took education extremely serious. At first they seemed different than I did, I was forced to go to school because of my mother, auntie and church. In college, going to class gave me insight into a new world of knowledge, but it also exposed me to seeing the benefits of an education.

In 2005, Dr. Eloise L. Young told me to start Young Faces Smiling and to give up my administration career. She mentioned often that it was needful for me to make sacrifices, give of my time and life’s savings towards building Young Faces Smiling. “Go to Harlem and help as many students as possible. Help them like I helped you. You are young and you can start your career over again, so start with creating an amazing new program,” she said. A few months later, Young Faces Smiling was born.

I was torn between quitting my career and building a non-profit with no security. It took me a few months to decide to leave NYC Department of Education. Leaving a six-figure salary to make no salary and giving up my life savings to build a vision was a leap of faith. My mother worked so hard for me to get where I was in the world of education, so quitting NYC Department of Education seemed nuts. As I reflect on the decade of personally investing over a quarter of a million dollars in Young Faces Smiling, I can remember friends, families, and even some strangers were convinced that I'd gone nuts and my investment was illogical. To be honest, at times, I often thought the same. However, my passion for education and the pain from my past were reminders of those that sacrificed for my success, and that I must do the same, even if it required more than what I'd planned.

Making that decision meant giving up a stable paycheck, health insurance, my 401k-retirement plan, professional workshops, education socializing, learning from colleagues, and everything else that comes with a stable career as a principal. My lifestyle of traveling, shopping, eating at fancy restaurants, and engaging in leisure activities would end. My American dream would instantly vanish for Young Faces Smiling’s vision and dreams. I would no longer feel in my hands any envelopes containing large wages that exceeded those at the start of my career.

Coming up with a name, a clear idea, and something to change the lives of students in Harlem and all over the world, even now, seems like too lofty a goal. Luckily, my rebel status has made me a risk taker! It still amazes me that Dr. Young convinced me, a girl born in Harlem, to execute the inconceivable things in life. Her mentorship is very potent, and it has been profound in my life. The way she helped me change my life laid the very foundation for creating Young Faces Smiling.

Young Faces Smiling was her vision, her namesake and it became our mission to help as many students as we possibly can. Dr. Young calls me 'Face' - My nickname is 'Face', and for years, Dr. Young called me 'Face', but I never understood why, until one day she said, “I call you ‘Face’ because every time I turn around, you are in somebody’s face ready to fight.”

The organization derived its named from its founders name, Dr. Eloise L. Young and Ardella 'Face' McClarty. I was often serious hardly ever smiling as a child in which Dr Young loves to laugh and smile and her mentorship changed my life putting a SMILE on my YOUNG FACE. 

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