By Jessica Walker
Reach your fullest potential.
The phrase is a favorite among motivational posters and well-meaning parents alike. It can seem like a lofty–even unachievable–goal. But, as the participants and staff of Good Shepherd Services (GSS) know, it’s really a daily mission.
GSS is a youth development, education, and family service agency that works throughout New York City. It provides more than 80 programs ranging from after-school camps to family support and counseling services. Despite GSS’s diverse programs, the purpose remains the same: help underserved youth and families recognize their fullest potentials.
“What we do is help kids not only reach for the stars, but also help them realize that–if you don’t get there–that’s okay,” says director of external relations Tricia Blanchard. “There’s a lot between you and the stars. We want them to realize, if you still reach your hand out, you can get a whole lot.”
Although GSS began operating in the 1940s, its work has roots that started decades prior in the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who aided young women who could no longer live at home. GSS continued assisting vulnerable youth, but evolved in the 1970s to incorporate families and communities. Now, through partnerships and advocacy, the organization has served nearly 30,000 people.
“Every child, every family has potential to thrive,” says Blanchard. “We provide access to resources to help them achieve, whatever that might mean for them.”
For some, that success includes attaining a high school education. In collaboration with the NYC Department of Education, GSS developed a transfer school model that first launched at the South Brooklyn Community High School. These transfer schools provide personalized educational support for previously disconnected students, such as those who are overage and under-credited.
“Not everyone thrives in a traditional school setting,” says Blanchard. “We provide an opportunity to get a high school diploma, not a GED. It responds to the needs of the students directly.”
A similar program at Brooklyn Frontiers High School aids incoming students who have been held back at least twice in elementary or middle school. Participants receive small classroom instruction and work with a coach to encourage future aspirations.
“A lot of [other] programs work with low-income families but only reach the highest-achieving students. While that is certainly needed, [GSS] reaches a portion of population that sometimes gets ignored,” says Blanchard. The school-based programs in particular are geared toward harder-to-reach adolescents, and create a space where all students can feel welcomed and valued.
GSS isn’t focused only on students, but also on families. They offer family counseling services, domestic violence programs, and assistance for obtaining public benefits. In the Family Foster Care program, 89% of children who were discharged were reunited with birth parents or relatives, or adopted.
Year-round, GSS hosts activities at community centers in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Skill building programs, family nights, and computer classes are designed to foster positive relationships between individual, family, and neighborhood.
“We try to be intentional about the communities we go into. Our work is very data driven,” says Blanchard. “We look at the best practices, and help programs adjust accordingly. Everything is done with an eye toward generating real impact.”
Even the GSS staff receives continual professional development and training. “We keep our mission alive on a day-to-day basis,” notes Blanchard.
“The goal is to make lives better,” she says. “[GSS] has a great reputation, one that’s deserved and earned.”