By Robin Jovanovich
Saint John (Don) Bosco was a 19th-century Italian priest and educator who put into practice his belief that the transformation of youth is achieved by engaging them through love and support. He brought literacy to street children and dedicated his life to making sure youth was not misspent.
The Salesians of Don Bosco, who serve in 150 countries around the world, were asked to run churches in Port Chester. And while not a church, Don Bosco, Port Chester’s oldest community center, has a strong spiritual grounding, and enables those who need our help to realize their fullest potential.
For the past three years, Executive Director Ann Heekin has made it her mission to expand
educational opportunities for Port Chester teens. Through Don Bosco Scholars, first-generation college access education is a reality. “We’ve been strategic about putting this program in place,” explained Heekin, “bringing out parents and providing college coach mentors and help with college essays and applications.”
Children from age 8 to 18 can take advantage of a wide variety of afterschool enrichment: Mac Lab, Maker Space, the only “Girls Who Code” class in Westchester County, and all kinds of art classes at Clay Arts Center, which is right next door to Don Bosco.
The Boys and Girls Club is the “sweet spot of afterschool for grades 4 through 8.”
The Early Childhood Bilingual Program, which Don Bosco is in the process of raising money to expand, has a parent education component.
“Our 15 teen counselors are mostly Port Chester High School seniors who we train,” noted Heekin.
On a typical weekday afternoon, 60 to 70 children enter the Center, which contains a huge gym and cafeteria. In “Den Bosco,” they play to their heart’s content.
“Here, children are loved unconditionally,” said Heekin. “Our mission and our history animate me every day.”
There was a day when Heekin worked in another sphere. She started out at advertising giant J. Walter Thompson under James Patterson (who’s also moved on to another life, as a bestselling author). “He was a delightful man to work for and learn from,” she said.
A Religion minor in college, Heekin said that as a young mother she started volunteering at CCD. She soon realized that a new path was in the road waiting to happen. She went back to school and earned both a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. She taught at Sacred Heart University and at Iona College. She still teaches two courses on Religious Ethics and Morality at Iona. “I get ‘fed’ through teaching,” she shared.
Heekin makes sure families are “fed” at Don Bosco, too. In addition to opening their doors to children after school, they serve the adult community at no charge from 6-1, offering coffee, ESL classes, lunch, and much more. “Through our Don Bosco Workers organization, we put men and women out to work every day and make sure they are paid. Our Food Pantry serves 450 families every month. We served 35,000 meals in the center last year,” noted Heekin with pride.
This week, Don Bosco introduced a bill, sponsored by County Legislator David Gelfarb, who represents District 6, to the Board of Legislators, to strengthen local enforcement of state wage theft laws.
This month, they are launching Don Bosco Direct Entry, a four-week pre-apprentice program to recruit and train minorities to work in the trades. “We already have 80 applicants,” reported Heekin, “ and will select 12. The union jobs these people get will be game-changers.”
Don Bosco will host its third annual Dream Gala Friday, November 10 at 7 at Apawamis Club. That night they will honor His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan with its St. John Bosco Youth Ministry Award, Church of the Resurrection with its Mission and Excellence Award, and Dinner Buddies founder Sebastian Cobb with its Youth Service Award.
One of Heekin’s tenets is that “All good <is> good.” And she demonstrates her faith every day.