Who: Jill Eisenhard, founder and executive director of the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) in Brooklyn
What she does: Runs a community center that provides training, tutoring and employment for teens and adults in Red Hook, the neighborhood that’s home to the second-largest public-housing project in New York City. In 10 years, RHI has created meaningful jobs for nearly 200 residents, 75 percent of them women and girls.
Birth of an idea: “I never intended to start an organization,” says Eisenhard, 37. In 2002 she was a health educator for Long Island College Hospital (LICH), talking to community groups. “The women in Red Hook were the most responsive, and I thought, What if I trained and paid them to educate their peers?”
First step: She submitted a grant proposal to the March of Dimes, then left for a new job. A few months later, her old boss at LICH called and said, “We have a $50,000 check here. Can you work on the project?” She stayed at the new job but for two and a half years spent evenings and weekends at the community project.
The transformation: “People would come by and say, ‘I know you do health here, but you have a computer, and I need to write my résumé.’ Or a teen would tell the women she was failing in school, and they’d give her help,” she says. Soon the project was offering tutoring, mentoring and reproductive-health education for teens and job-seeking skills, parenting classes and community problem solving for adults. Participants are trained and then paid an hourly wage to educate others. In 2005, Eisenhard came on board full time, and the next year RHI became an independent nonprofit supported by corporate and individual donors, grants and state and city funds.
Home sweet home: After RHI lost its donated office in 2008, Eisenhard found warehouse space nearby, but it was raw and needed work. She posted a request for help on Idealist.org, a networking website for nonprofits, and within a few hours received a response from the architectural firm Super-Interesting!, which volunteered to design green headquarters free of charge.
The best surprise: “Everything happens when it’s supposed to: This building was empty when we needed it; an architect designed the space for free. Life here is one little miracle after another.”
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